From Jason Collins to Michael Sam: Examining ‘watershed’ moment in American sports

WUSTL symposium April 11 explores convergence of race, gender and sexuality in pro sports

“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”

For scholars of race, gender and sexuality, it’s no accident that NBA basketball player Jason Collins chose these words to become the first active openly gay athlete in the history of America’s four major professional men’s sports — baseball, hockey, football and basketball.

Collins’ story, and that of openly gay University of Missouri football star Michael Sam, will be the focus of a one-day symposium Friday, April 11, in the Women’s Building Formal Lounge at Washington University in St. Louis.

The symposium, “Jason Collins in the American Sportscape: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Sexuality,” will examine these important cultural moments and consider how they fit into a larger politics of racialized discourses of homophobia and non-dominant sexuality in American culture.

Free and open to the public, the event will include two panel discussions. The first, beginning at 10:30 a.m., will focus on the meaning of Collins and Sam in this contemporary moment. The second, starting at 3 p.m., will explore broader lessons and what the future holds.

“Professional sports is a mirror that Americans hold up to themselves as a nation,” said Iver Bernstein, PhD, professor of history and of African and African-American Studies, and professor and director of American Culture Studies, all in Arts & Sciences. “We are living at a watershed cultural moment, when matters of sexual identity that U.S. professional sports so often take as a given are being opened up for critical discussion.

“This symposium gives attention to basic questions such as ‘who are we?’ and ‘what are the shared assumptions that define the communities that we form?’ ” Bernstein said.

New era in American professional sports

For fans and scholars alike, Collins’ “coming out” announcement — emblazoned across the May 6, 2013, cover of Sports Illustrated — ushered in a new era in American professional sports.

Then, early in 2014, standout Missouri linebacker and likely NFL draftee Michael Sam announced that he was gay, but also stressed that his identity was multi-faceted: “I’m a college graduate. I’m African-American, and I’m gay.”

Said program coordinator Noah Cohan, a doctoral candidate in
English and in American literature and a Lynne Cooper Harvey Fellow in
American Culture Studies, “The symposium is inspired by the words Collins and Sam chose — in what they knew would be historic announcements thought to advance gay and lesbian rights — to assert their race before their sexuality.

“Given the prominent role of sports in American race relations — especially in the second half of the 20th century — Collins’ and Sam’s choice of words cannot be simply understood as accidental,” said Cohan, also founding coordinator of the Sports Studies Caucus of the American Studies Association.

“It begs the question: how does their ‘coming out’ help us recontextualize the relationship between race and sexuality in American sports? How does race complicate the discourse of non-dominant sexuality and how do black men and women understand their sexual selves?”

Panelist Jeffrey Q. McCune Jr., PhD, cautions that “coming out” may not be possible for many black gay athletes.

“For those at the margins of the margins, what folks like Jason Collins have done is often implausible or undesirable. This truth deserves recognition as well,” said McCune, associate professor of performing arts and of women, gender and sexuality studies at WUSTL.

“For players who already find it difficult to be black in the sport and in the world, the desire to mark oneself and make one more available to surveillance is rarely understood as a good move,” McCune said. “It is not a shame of their sexuality; it is about the safety and job security found within remaining discreet.”

McCune, author of “Sexual Discretion: Black Masculinity and the Politics of Passing,” is unsure if these announcements signal real change in societal attitudes toward gays and lesbians.

“It only requires a trip to the locker room, the press, popular blogs or the local church to see that such announcements garner as much hate as they do praise,” McCune said.

The program is sponsored by the Program in American Culture Studies, with support from the departments of English and History.

In addition to McCune, panelists are:

  • Edward E. Baptist, PhD, a distinguished scholar of African American History, associate professor at Cornell University and author of “The Half Has Never been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism”;
  • David J. Leonard, PhD, chair of Critical Culture, Gender, & Race Studies at Washington State University and author of “After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness”;
  • Thabiti Lewis, PhD, associate professor of English, Washington State University Vancouver, and author of “Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America”;
  • David Shields, professor of English at the University of Washington and author of “Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season”; and
  • Lucia Trimbur, PhD, assistant professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The City University of New York, and an expert on sexual identity in boxing gym culture.

For more information, visit the symposium website here.