It takes a lot for me to say this. The Tennessee Vols deserve better.
They deserve better than the torrent of supposedly faux-homophobia this video is going to loose on them. They deserve less the-sky-is-falling hand-wringing from their own side. (And, Clay, they certainly deserve funnier jokes than Brokeback Mountain and Bruno references.)
These players will hear a slur that I will never use in every SEC stadium this fall. They’re going to have their sexuality brought up and impugned far more than Tim Tebow’s virginity will. And they’re going to be the butt of jokes for a long time to come on the Internet.
But they have done nothing wrong and nothing gay. No one in this situation has, not even the YouTube poster who took part of this video, added Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” and felt compelled to write “Eric Erry and the UT Wild Boys are just too sexy. Who knew the state of Tennessee was so tolerant of “alternative lifestyles?” as the video’s description.
Sure, there’s no denying that it’s easy to read a high level of homoeroticism in this video: There are a bunch of physically fit men without shirts on in the video and the song is an identified gay anthem. But homoeroticism is not homosexuality, no matter how much we conflate the two. And nothing in that video is proof of anything other than the apparent physical fitness of the team, and none of it is even a bad look: Heterosexual women and gay men watch football, too, and I’m sure that they’re going to love this video.
Hell, the Tennessee players who got to show off their physiques and touch a Lamborghini will be the biggest beneficiaries: I guarantee some coeds will see it and launch new crushes.
The problem is that the idea that an athlete must conform to an old, conservative, ultramasculine version of heterosexuality to fit in is as powerful in locker rooms as it is appalling and archaic.
Vince Young being shirtless in a club means he’s shirtless in a club, nothing more; Jeff Garcia enduring slurs from Terrell Owens means only that Owens is a jerk. Yet these players get tagged as “gay” in others’ minds, and that, because the predominantly male sporting culture further associates “gay” and “soft” or “weak,” causes a whole new slew of problems.
It’s not just the athletes, either. Read Jeff MacGregor’s phenomenal column about the furor over Hawai’i coach Greg McMackin using a slur repeatedly at a press conference, and you get a sense of the problem’s scope and severity.
Read MacGregor’s conclusion, and you see a way out:
I don’t want Mr. McMackin punished for society’s larger troubles any more than I want Prof. Henry Louis Gates or Sgt. James Crowley to bear sole racial responsibility for every inflexible cop or every hotheaded homeowner with an ego. The Gates/Crowley matter is in its way a reflection of the same civic problem — intolerance. And whether you believe it’s the intolerance Crowley showed Gates, or the intolerance Gates showed Crowley — or the knuckleheaded intolerance Coach McMackin showed about lives different than his own — it all gets you to the same place.
So Ecce homo, y’all. Behold the man. And the banality of his every prejudice.
Instead of trying to understand these Vols, many will rush to the easy joke, to the play on a fake sense of intolerance. Except, for some, it really isn’t a play, because it really is intolerance, from people who honestly believe that homosexuality is unnatural, that under the aegis of justice it is right to discriminate based on who someone is compelled to be attracted to by their own immutable genetics. (It’s worthwhile to consider that, by some of that same logic, interracial or interfaith or Florida-Tennessee couplings would be—and are—looked down upon in the same way.)
This is their right, to free thought and free expression. It’s my right to disagree, and to assert that in this and most cases, a little understanding goes a long way.
I, like MacGregor, don’t see any need for punishing lone actors for societal ills. But, like MacGregor, I want us to try to learn something from an incident instead of laughing this time like we have every time.
Don’t say the Gators never did something like this. Don’t ignore Georgia Tech doing it this year. Don’t pretend that Virginia Tech doesn’t take odd pictures. And don’t overlook USC’s similarly fun and ostensibly “gay” sing-along.
Do think a little more critically.
What if Lane Kiffin took this video, and the hubbub around it, and turned the ill will and rejection into an honest and sincere proposal for tolerance and understanding?
What if Eric Berry did? What if Pete Carroll did? What if Tim Tebow did?
There’s a movement I could get behind.