IT WAS HOT and impossibly muggy in St. Louis on June 3 when the Rams opened their organized team activities. So it must have happened at some point that afternoon. On the far left side of the locker room, in front of his stall, Michael Sam wrapped himself in a towel, grabbed some shampoo and walked across the room that during OTAs can reach nearly twice its normal capacity. Then he arrived at a pattern of tiny gray-and-blue linoleum tile, thereby breaking the ultimate taboo in men's team sports: an openly gay man showering with his NFL teammates.
The barrier that Sam strolled through in June was long considered an unbreakable cultural obstacle to acceptance for gay players, even in a society in which, according to Gallup, 78 percent of people under 30 support same-sex marriage. There's just something sacred about the ritual of the team shower, we were told -- the outside world would never understand. Sam wasn't the first, of course: Jason Collins showered with his Nets teammates after coming out last year. But this was unprecedented in an NFL locker room, our culture's ultimate temple of masculinity.
When stinky teammates strip down to their most vulnerable state, it conjures, for some, a range of emotions: their most awkward memories (middle school gym class), deepest insecurities (size), purest symbolism (baptism) and most ignorant defense mechanisms (homophobia). The refrain has always been: I'll accept a gay teammate, I just won't shower with one. "Imagine if he's the guy next to me and, you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine," then-Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said in February. "And it just so happens he looks at me. How am I supposed to respond?"
Vilma can start by not being so coy. Getting clean next to a gay teammate is probably one of the more ordinary things that happens in the team shower. And if there's one universal certainty in a sports shower, it's this: Everyone's looking.
NFL TEAMMATES SPEND at least 20 hours together in the shower each season. Without the use of horse blinders, it would be virtually impossible for Vilma, or anyone else, to go more than 20 minutes without a penis, or six, crossing his line of vision. Nether-region glancing in showers is so commonplace, according to scores of athletes interviewed for this story, there's even a crude term for when the eyes linger just a tad too long: meat peeping.
Visit any locker room now or throughout history and administer sodium pentothal, and you would find that every player knows exactly which player has the largest, and smallest, penis on the team. You could start in Greece -- birthplace of the Olympics and the gymnasium (in Greek: "to exercise naked"). In Roman community baths, it was customary for men to stand and applaud when a well-endowed peer entered the water. In a recent book on masculinity and sports, British sociologist Chris Morriss-Roberts wrote: "The activity of checking out each other occurred irrelevant of sexuality and the type of sport; all participants noted that they looked at each other's [penises] in the locker room."
When former NFL cornerback Wade Davis, the executive director of the LGBT athletes' advocacy group You Can Play, speaks to teams about tolerance inside the locker room, he uses this very reference to break the ice: "Let's just stop with this idea that 'Oh, gay guys are looking at everyone's penises,' because you straight guys -- admit it -- you all know you're looking too," he tells his audience. This is invariably followed by tense moments of silence and sideways glances until the room busts out in laughter. "Then," Davis says, "all the inside shower jokes break out."
The team shower, in fact, is one of the few places in our culture where men objectify each other in the cruel manner normally reserved for women. One former Tennessee Titan was so poorly endowed that every time he stepped into the shower, teammates would ask him, "Have you pissed on your balls today?" Well-endowed players (sometimes referred to as Hall of Fame members) get it even worse.
"I'm in the shower the first day, and everyone's looking but not looking, ya know?" says an NFL linebacker. "I got my head down, washing my hair, and I look over to the side and I see, like, an extra limb flopping around. This was the biggest penis I have ever seen. I was like: 'Dude, what the f--- is that thing?' And he was so shy and reserved about it. He was like, 'Come on, man. Cool it.' That just made it worse. 'Donkey D--k' became a running thing on the team for years. It was like, 'Donkey, you gotta own that thing! If any of us had that, the whole world would know about it!'"
When it comes to odd behavior in the bathroom, though, comparing penis sizes is not the half of it. Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux used to mosey up to rookies in the shower, engage them in conversation and, while pretending to listen to them talk, secretly pee down their legs. (Players describe so much peeing in showers that it's a wonder teams even bother to install urinals in locker rooms.) And many teams use the shower as Maddux did, to establish hierarchy. On the Titans, Jason McCourty always takes the last showerhead on the left, while Bernard Pollard likes the pressure and temp of the middle shower. "If anybody is in it," warns Pollard, "they are going to move."
Besides marking territory, interaction in showers can go from the occasional naked dance-off to towel-snapping, ass-slapping and the miming of various sex acts.
In a literal sense too, the shower is often the filthiest place in the stadium. There are tales from Oakland of raw sewage seeping up through the shower drains. Breakouts of MRSA, a form of staph infection resistant to many antibiotics, have made hitting the showers in Cleveland and Tampa a matter of life and death. Purposefully spartan in design, team showers are usually a simple open-ended 300-square-foot rectangle lined with plain tile and 15 or so shared industrial spigots -- they're designed so that no one wants to spend an extra second in there. It's almost always crowded, uncomfortably steamy and dangerously slippery. Some sociologists hypothesize that one reason teams don't provide individual showers is that the more privacy you provide, the easier it is for behavior to escalate from homosocial to something sexual.
As a culture, we have always struggled to reconcile the idea that such an intimate, homoerotic ritual is being performed by men who epitomize the culture's heterosexual ideal. "A bunch of athletic men, all naked together, lathering themselves up and bonding in a shower room -- I mean, that's the beginning of a gay romance novel," says Scott Cooper, a former linebacker for Augsburg College in Minneapolis who in 2013 officially came out to his teammates before his senior season. "But the reality is that it smells like s--- in there, you've got big, heavy linemen with their perpetual BO and all you really want to do is rinse off, get clean and get out of there without touching some guy's smelly ass or stepping in anything gooey."
Still, isn't a gay player's showering with straight teammates the same as a straight man in a locker room full of attractive women? Davis says no, and when speaking to teams he asks straight players to imagine that the women in their locker room fantasy are, instead, their moms, sisters, aunts and other family members. It's the same for gay players, he says: They view teammates as family. They're not going to be attracted to their brothers. And vice versa. Players, he says, find the theory comforting, if not entirely foolproof. "To be blunt, I never worried about popping a boner in the shower," says Cooper. "It's just not a romantic place at all."
In St. Louis, all Sam will say is that the Rams have provided a "comfortable environment." His teammates' reaction to showering with the first openly gay man in NFL history can best be summed up as one collective yawn. "Look, guys shower together," says Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar. "And Sam's been showering with guys forever. We haven't had any issues, and he's been here a month, and I'm pretty sure he's washed his tail in the last month. I don't know what people think or what their perception is of a team shower, but it's really not that cool. You just kind of get in there and get clean and just drop drawers. If everybody hasn't moved on from this already, they should now."
THE LINK BETWEEN the regenerative properties of water and the masculine ritual of bathing together is so strong for teams that after integrating the major leagues, Jackie Robinson still felt like an outsider in his own clubhouse until a fellow Dodger coaxed him to start showering with the rest of his Brooklyn teammates. Today, when a player rushes out of the practice facility without dropping drawers with his teammates, he'll get teased for relying on what's jokingly called a "shower pill" until he relents and gets under the water.
The bond runs so deep that at this year's Super Bowl, when Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and several teammates wanted to rejuvenate during halftime, they all stripped naked and jumped into the shower at MetLife Stadium while the rest of the world bathed in Bruno Mars. Ninety minutes after the final whistle, receiver Golden Tate was back in the shower, this time celebrating with the presumably waterproof Lombardi trophy.
It's not just locker room etiquette that has changed; the very definition of masculinity has evolved. Once, presenting as a member of the heterosexual athletic hegemony required acting homophobic. Now, many athletes say, being a man's man in the sports world requires supreme confidence -- and to show it by respecting everyone, even when the only thing you're both wearing are shower flip-flops. "I don't know exactly how the definition of masculinity has changed over the years," says Rams defensive end Chris Long. "But as a 29-year-old, my definition of being a man is treating people with respect and having the courage to accept differences in others no matter what. And someone's sexuality is just not at the top of my list when I'm deciding how to treat people and conduct myself."
So perhaps it's actually a sign of change that Michael Sam's new teammates are already picking on him, just like they would any other rookie. "We're usually just in there talking about practice or something, like, 'Mike, you kinda got your ass beat out there today, you know what I'm saying?'" says Rams wideout T.J. Moe, who also played with Sam at Missouri. Adds linebacker and team captain James Laurinaitis, "You're not a part of the group if you're not being made fun of. I have gigantic ears, and I'd feel like people here didn't like me anymore if no one made fun of my ears. It's the exact same with Michael. He wants to be clowned on and made fun of just like everyone else. And that's what has happened."
At Augsburg, Cooper never felt more happy, or accepted, than when he and his teammates -- the born-agains and the badasses alike -- stopped staring at the shower ceiling after he came out and went back to relentlessly making fun of one another. At first, they snickered at all of his hair and skin products. Then they started borrowing them. When a teammate asked him if he had been tanning, Cooper yelled back, "Oh, are you staring at me naked?"
They were even able to play the darkest shower taboo for laughs. "Early on I had to tell my teammates, 'You can make fun of it, you can joke about it, it's OK: Come at me,'" says Cooper. "So then any time we'd be in the shower and someone would drop their soap, everyone would yell, 'Uh-oh, Coop!' and we'd all laugh."
That kind of teasing camaraderie has always been the rule, rather than the exception, when it comes to the team shower -- no matter players' sexual orientation. Case in point: One of the most popular ways of hazing NFL rookies these days is by repeatedly splashing them with shampoo and liquid soap right as they step out of the shower, forcing them to go back inside to rinse off.
So all this time the sports world has been trying to convince us that real men would never allow gay players in a space as intimate and sacred as the team shower.
But the naked truth is, whether they realize it or not, they won't let them out.
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