More than semi-tough – the brutal ballet of the NFL

American football is a game of balletic beauty, violence and definite homoeroticism...

We take a break from the Olympics to reflect on a disturbing story that led many newspapers and programs Saturday – the report on the hazing of former Miami Dolphin Jonathan Martin, which paints an ugly portrait of homophobia, misogyny, racism and inappropriate touching.

The report concludes that teammate Richie Incognito and his acolytes John Jerry and Mike Pouncey harassed not only Martin but another young offensive lineman and an assistant trainer. Particularly revolting were the sexual comments about Martin’s sister, who has nothing to do with any of this. (Incognito’s lawyer, Mark Schamel, has said the report is replete with errors.) Whatever took place was so unnerving to Martin that he left the team and sought psychiatric help.

What is going on here? In an Op-Ed piece for the Feb. 15 edition of The New York Times, Nicholas Dawidoff, author of “Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent world of NFL Football,” suggests that homophobia is the sport’s shield against its inherent homoeroticism.   Think about it – all those men bending over, passing the ball between their legs, piling on top of one another, often in the most violent ways. Then there’s the intensity of the locker room with its attendant nudity.

Contrast this with the so-called gay, feminine world of ballet, where, contrary to popular opinion, many if not most of the best male dancers are heterosexual. As former New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre star Ethan Stiefel once told me, male dancers get to spend the whole day touching attractive women wearing very little while they themselves wear very little. For the guy who likes girls, it’s a dream job.

But the NFL is a world devoid not only of women but of the qualities that we associate with feminine energy. It’s a world that mistakes toughness for strength, and the result is an astonishing brutality. 

In my upcoming novel “In This Place You Hold Me” – read the first chapter here – I locate the metaphor for that brutality in the relationships New York Templars’ quarterback Quinton Day Novak has with two other star QBs, Tamarind Tarquin of The San Francisco Miners and Mallory Ryan of The Philadelphia Quakers. One of those relationships is actually quite loving, but it’s threatened by Quinn’s S and M relationship with the other quarterback and by the violent history Tam and Mal share. Violence indeed is the currency of love in my novel. But then violence seems to be the currency of love in a sport in which holding – something that has a nurturing connotation in everyday life – is illegal.

It’s no accident that Quinn is Indonesian-American. Very often the players that are the subject of taunting – by fans on the Web as well as teammates – are minorities. (Jonathan Martin is black.) To be gay, black or female is to be other than those who have held the power and wish to maintain the status quo. That’s why I remain skeptical about the reception Michael Sam, the black University of Missouri player who’s just come out, will receive if he’s drafted by the NFL. Of course, the NFL has made all the right, supportive noises. But we’re also hearing that he might not have the skill set for the NFL.

You know what? Maybe he does; maybe he doesn’t. But doubting the guy’s ability before he’s given a chance sounds an awful lot like the knock put on every minority group that has ever knocked on the door.