The Kings Cross Steelers pose in a new shoot for Meat magazine.
To mark their 20th anniversary as the UK’s first gay rugby team, the Kings Cross Steelers stipped down and posed for a new book to be published by indie ‚zine Meat.
Entitled Meat The Kings Cross Steelers, the book features 29 players from the team’s 200-strong membership. All the players were photographed by Meat’s founder, Adrian Lourie.
Lourie, who started Meat in 2010, said that he was “tired of the body shaming that goes on within the gay community.” His aim is to “celebrate the bodies of ‘ordinary gay men.”
Christopher Kang, 1st XC player of The Kings Cross Steelers, who is featured in Meat, also agrees with Lourie in regards to male body image.
“I see myself as a pretty average looking-dude so I don’t really see myself as a pin-up anything,” Kang said. “So I’m chuffed that I’ve had the good fortune of joining a long line of Meat magazine dudes alongside so many of my fellow Steelers. The Steelers has not only helped pave the way for inclusive rugby teams but also helped hanged perceptions about gay sportsmen.”
Alex Smith, Chairman of the Kings Cross Steelers said: “Despite so much progress over the last 20 years, it can still be very difficult to be an out gay man, made even more so by a lot of unhelpful noise around how to be, act or look within the community. That’s why I’m proud that the Kings Cross Steelers have partnered with Meat to help show that anyone can be a pin-up by simply being yourself.”
He added: “For two decades, our club has helped hundreds of men – big, small, gay or straight – realize the great maxim about rugby: that it is a game for people of all shapes and sizes – truly a sport for everyone.”
If the pictures aren’t enough, be sure to watch the teasers for more of the hunky team’s players:
Here’s What Really Happens in Men’s Locker Rooms
Have you ever been inside a men’s locker room? It’s a kind of purgatory that smells like feet. You aren’t missing much. But just in case you want to know exactly what you’re missing, allow me to mansplain.
In my 10+ years of going to gyms in New York multiple times a week, I’ve noticed that at least 80 percent of the talking in men’s locker rooms happens under men’s breath, generally in the form of apologies. They mutter they’re sorry because they’re in your way or because you’re in theirs—an inevitability when you’re all using slender and short lockers stacked two high—or because they’ve filled the bench next to the lockers with their clothes and wet towels and toiletries and duffel bag. Space can get really tight—recently, it was so crowded that a man who was crouching down to get his stuff out of one of the lower lockers squatted his butt on my water bottle that was sitting at the edge of the bench. I watched his clothed butthole hit bullseye on the bottle’s cap. I can’t remember if I washed it after.
Sometimes a particularly good-natured patron will remark on how it always seems that you return to your locker at the same time that a person using an adjacent locker to yours does, no matter how empty or crowded the locker room is. It does always seem like this, but probably because you only notice when it happens and don’t even think about how annoying it is to change on top of another person when it isn’t happening. But maybe also there is something to general rules of space-filling yielding to clusters of people who roughly enter and exit the gym at the same time. I’m not sure, I’ve been meaning to look up a study on it.
Once a man approached the locker where I was changing and noted that his locker was near mine but that he’d wait for me to finish. I think I said, “OK,” and continued changing. After let’s say 30 seconds he changed his mind, and decided he wanted to get into his locker because he didn’t know how slow I was going to be. I told him I would have stepped aside to spare myself his evaluation of my process and that furthermore, “I shouldn’t have to even talk to you.” I think he gasped theatrically at the notion that I might not want to have a conversation with him. If he were smart, he would have slapped me with his workout glove for effect, but he just seemed like an idiot.
Beyond the otherwise, almost cartoonish politeness deriving from human crowding, it’s rare to hear any conversation in a men’s locker room and even rarer to hear interesting ones. I heard a guy proudly proclaim to his friends, “I cheated on my wife!” once. I took their non-responsiveness as embarrassment for him. Maybe I was just imposing empathy, because I was embarrassed for him. Another guy with a godlike physique and prominent bald spot that, much to my surprise, only made him hotter, talked about his ex-wife of six years to the gym employee that was picking up towels from the floor (I assumed they were friends, but really, they might have been total strangers). “Does your man know you still look at men like that?” he said, implying he had been the recipient of his ex’s lingering gaze. “Does he even know what that look means?” I dunno, it seemed plausible that this woman would have her own look for the man she had decided to be with over the hot balding guy? He compared the situation to a movie, but it sounded more like an R&B song to me.
Since deciding to write this post, I have paid extra attention to what gets said in the locker room, and that has been very boring. Yesterday, I walked in to hear a man muttering, “He did three fuckin’ sets.” And then, after a few beats: “Literally three sets.” And then, after a few more beats: “Three sets.” He had a Complete Cookie wrapper on the bench in front of him, and was wearing headphones, so perhaps he was on the phone and perhaps he was just talking to himself out loud. The nice thing about modern technology is that you can openly talk to yourself with your hands-free headphones in (or if you really want to be deceptive, by holding your phone up to your face in old-fashioned hands-on style) and no one will suspect anything (unless they’re gathering information on how people communicate in public). “Wait a minute, tomorrow is Wednesday…” that man continued to his best friend, himself.
I rarely hear music at my gym’s locker room, though once a man took it upon himself to play Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” from his iPhone speaker as he moisturized. I’ve listened that song so many times, but never with my balls glued to my underwear with sweat, so this experience made for a refreshing spin on a perennial favorite.
One thing that is interesting about men’s locker rooms is that you get to see dicks. Well, some dicks. Some guys change by wrapping themselves in a towel while still wearing their shorts/underwear and then sliding their bottom coverings off once they are covered. Sometimes this doesn’t work out and their towel becomes undone in the process, inadvertently exposing them, and you can’t help but wonder if they’re wondering why they bothered. I’m not the changing-while-covered kind of guy, in case you are wondering. I’m not a nudist or anything fun like that. In fact, I’m pretty self-conscious—so self-conscious, in fact, that I’d feel weirder being the guy changing under his towel than just quickly stripping myself and letting my dick hit the air for a few seconds. Fake it till you make it so that no one notices your insecurities about how well your dick is hanging at the moment. Once, seconds after changing, a stranger approached me to tell me that he liked something I had written. I wanted to say, “My dick was just out,” but I think I just said, “Thanks.”
Speaking of dicks out, you may wonder if men have sex in locker rooms. Yes, at least in New York they do, depending on your definition of sex. Rarely have I entered a sauna or steam room and not been at least masturbated at. These days I don’t join in, but when I first started going to a particularly cruisy gym in Manhattan, I had just watched the 2005 documentary Gay Sex in the ‘70s. What I had thought just days before was a bygone halcyon time of gay male liberation was alive and well, pulsing in the boners being adjusted and configured in soaked-through thin white towels. What a time to be alive. I’ve heard wild stories but I’ve only witnessed what amounts to heavy petting. In our current wave of man-on-man sexual liberation thanks to geolocation apps and a proliferation of orgies, steam-room sex is yet another choice in an option-saturated culture.
In my current gym, the steam-room door needs oiling. During particularly cruisy times (7-9 pm on weekdays, Sunday afternoons), you hear a steady stream of squeaks that sound like a dog being stepped on or an anal novice getting penetrated for the first time. Very jarring.
I used to go to this gym in Williamsburg with my ex that had shower stalls with frosted doors that allowed outsiders to more or less make out what was going on inside without seeing directly in. A guy was just straight-up jerking off by himself one day. He didn’t seem to be signaling that he wanted company. Just a dude finishing himself off after finishing off a workout. Nice.
I’m trying to think if anything meaningful has ever happened in the men’s locker room, and I’m coming up short but at least I tried. Men can only do so much.
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I’m a man in my 20s. I’m currently dating a great girl, and I’m confident in my sexuality. However, ever since I was a preteen, I’ve had a fetish that seems to only be getting stronger. I get really turned on by being naked in locker rooms—by both the voyeurism and exhibitionism. I’m fit and well equipped and get lots of looks from other guys at my gym. I don’t think they are gay, either. I look, too, but never stare. I also find myself masturbating to locker room videos online, most of which I think are filmed without permission. On top of this, on a forum for guys into the same thing, I met a married guy in my city who says he sometimes masturbates in locker room shower stalls and catches all kinds of guys peeking. I have to admit that idea turns me on a lot. I feel some guilt about this—even if I am not leering and am acting normal for the most part, it’s very sexual for me and I know it would make other guys uncomfortable. I also feel some shame, despite knowing for sure I’m into girls, and I’m afraid of how my girlfriend would react if she saw the porn. I don’t know if I’m doing something wrong. It’s definitely not going away, though.
Stoya: Since I’m at peak PMS, I want to zero in on this writer’s shame. You feel some shame, despite knowing for sure you’re into girls? Let’s unpack that. I see hints of internalized homophobia in that line, and I think he’d be a lot more comfortable if he dealt with it.
Rich: Jane Ward’s 2015 book Not Gay kicked off a lot of discourse about “straight” guys who engage in “gay” sex, and I think it did a real disservice to nuance by being totally credulous of self-labeling. Given the societal pressure to be straight and the history of closeted gay, bi, and queer men saying one thing and doing another, I don’t necessarily think we need to take people at their word when they say they’re straight and do things that suggest otherwise.
Stoya: I’d go further. I think we struggle to self-report our sexuality across the board. There’s the genital response study from a few decades ago that focused on “arousal nonconcordance.”
Rich: Agreed, it’s hardly confined to “straight guys.”
Rich: Right. I think what happens is people say, to themselves, “Well, gay/bi/queer people are like this.” And their image is some stereotype that they see as negative. And so they reject labels. I think that it makes sense to acknowledge a fundamental difference in the sexuality of someone who seeks sexual contact and/or experiences with men, no matter in what form or frame, and someone who does not. Sure, you can think of labels as being confining, but you can also think of your own existence as helping to expand the parameters of such labels.
Stoya: I am hearing more about the latter lately: people who are a bit queer but read as straight cis guys and continue to identify as straight cis guys to expand that definition, specifically.
Rich: Ah, yes, I guess that’s the other label that can be expanded. I tend to think of “straight” as being unwaveringly narrow (does not have or desire to have sex or sexual contact with members of the same sex) and queer as the wavering, from the slightest pulse to seismic vibrations. Regardless, you like what you like! As long as it’s consensual, you’re better off embracing it—and if you’re not acknowledging it in your self-identification, I don’t know that you’re embracing it.
Which I guess brings us to the question of consent in this writer’s exhibitionist kink.
Stoya: This one is tricky. We can’t tell him to stay out of the locker room. Working out is great for people. And bathing after is probably good.
Rich: It’s 100 percent socially acceptable to be nude in a locker room too.
Stoya: You sort of have to if you’re going to shower. Never-nudes aside.
Rich: Or the people who put on a towel to take their underwear off, which is so awkward and often results in slippage that negates the point.
Stoya: The furtive quality of his kink might heighten the experience for him, too.
Rich: True, though I will say that men’s locker rooms are explicitly erotically charged in New York. I could count on my hand the number of times I haven’t been masturbated at in a steam room or sauna.
Stoya: Seriously? Do you go to particularly gay gyms?
Rich: Not even! My God, on Valentine’s Day a few years ago there was a note on the steam room door: “Due to inappropriate behavior, Men’s Sauna and Steam Room has been shut down until further notice.” The whole shower area was just a cruising ground. Guys walking back and forth, and then going from the steam room to the sauna.
Rich: No doubt. Locker rooms are really their own universe. I was buddies with a couple whose rules were “We only play together unless one of us is in a steam room, in which case all bets are off.” Locker room play was written into their verbal contract! I get how this guy is particularly turned on.
Stoya: Y’all make circus people look puritanical. And the situation just got stickier. Because some people would be thrilled to know what this guy is feeling, while others would feel violated.
Rich: Yeah, and it does strike me that for straight guys who just want a steam and have no interest in jerking off with another guy, it really must suck. (I should note that some gyms have strict policies, and anyone caught dick-in-hand runs the risk of losing their membership or even legal trouble.) I’m not a big fan of public sex, so it kind of sucks for me too, actually. I just don’t go into them.
Stoya: Whatever the case, the locker room is probably a different story though.
Rich: I do wonder if it’s just like that in NYC or what. I went to a gym’s sauna in Colorado Springs and it was not sexual at all.
Stoya: The other guy mentioned here claims to have jerked off in stalls and lives in the same city, so our writer either lives in NYC or NYC is not an outlier.
Rich: To your previous point, I think in general he should pump the brakes and only show off to guys who obviously want to see him. You know, there are glances, and then there are glances. If he wants to jerk off, he could treat one of those guys to a private show in a stall with the curtain closed. Although the same risks apply as in a sauna or steam room, and we’re entering cheating territory with his girlfriend, if we haven’t already been there the whole time.
Stoya: Yeah, this is where the girlfriend’s consent comes into play too. There’s a line past which she’ll feel cheated on, and he needs to establish that line, which means coming clean with the girlfriend whose reaction he fears.
Rich: Yes, and regardless of her reaction, I hope that he can understand that his desires—exhibitionism and voyeurism with other men—are 100 percent OK in the abstract. It seems like the main attraction is that this is happening in a locker room, but I wonder if a masturbation club would be useful for him.
Rich: I was reading about them today, and there are a lot of self-identified straight guys who like to jerk off with other dudes. From Slate’s piece on them: “The results of ‘Is mutual masturbation gay?’ were 465 to 100 that mutual masturbation is not gay.”
Stoya: As though anything is binary like that, but yes.
Rich: Right. I think that’s the main thing. As not gay as it may be, it’s also not not gay. And take it from me, that’s OK!
Stoya: Even if the girlfriend freaks out and turns into a shame monster, it’s OK. Even if he’s feeling confused and shameful himself, he’s OK.
Rich: Even if this is as far as he ever wants to go with guys, he’s OK.
Stoya: Even if he goes all the way through to taking a dick the size of my arm up his butt, he’s OK, and he can identify however he wants. But he really might want to deal with his feelings around that before he broaches the subject with his girlfriend or strides into the steam room.
Stoya: I don’t believe his first line where he says he’s confident in his sexuality.
Rich: That was a dog whistle of insecurity, which is totally reasonable to have in a world that’s most welcoming to heteros. It’s not right, but it’s OK.
How HBO’s ‘Euphoria’ tackled a fear that many men have
In the second episode of Euphoria, HBO’s new drama about naughty teenagers, hunky football player Nate, played by Jacob Elordi, is shown fully clothed in the middle of a boisterous locker room filled with his naked teammates and their exposed penises.
While the other bros wag their dicks about in slow motion, Nate looks straight ahead, desperate not to be caught staring at a flailing phallus. “He hated how casual his teammates were about being naked,” the show’s narrator, Zendaya’s Rue, says of Nate. “He made a concerted effort to always maintain eye contact… Every now and then he’d forget, and accidentally catch a glimpse of someone’s penis.”
I too have had a contentious relationship with locker room nudity. If you’re an American male under the age of 35, chances are you did as well, or probably still do. It’s no coincidence that the word describing a constant fear of nudity is, after all, gymnophobia.
My gymnophobia began in sixth grade when I was told by my father, the athletic director of my school district, I had to change clothes before gym class in front of my peers. I seethed with resentment. Didn’t he know I had to shield my little-boy body from scrutiny at all costs? While everyone else seemed to be growing like trees, sprouting razor-thin mustaches, and developing bushes of pubes (or so I imagined), if you put me in a wig, I was a dead ringer for that pint-sized definition of 90’s femininity, Polly Pocket.
It was the end of 1999. Everyone else was waiting to see if Y2K would kill the world’s computers once the Ball finally dropped, but I could only think about the balls dropping between my thighs. Thus, I concocted a foolproof plan to avoid disrobing in the locker room. I’d wear athletic shorts underneath my perfectly pleated school khakis, and before gym class began, drop my drawers faster than a Broadway chorus boy in a quick change and bolt out of the locker room. I kept up this charade up throughout high school. If I lingered among changing males, I thought I’d accidentally look at someone the wrong way, be seen as the faggot I knew I was, and meet my untimely demise — social or otherwise.
As a result, the only naked male bodies I saw until adulthood were mostly on film and all related to sex. These bodies included Kevin Bacon’s at the end of Wild Things (yowza), my father’s when I accidentally walked in on him and my mom once (yuck), and gay porn (yum).
I managed to escape locker room nudity until I moved to New York City for my post-collegiate career. Going to the gym in my new home, however, provided a host of unforeseen challenges. Most notably, it necessitated on-site changing and showering. I quickly mastered the art of towel changing. This magic trick, I soon learned, is practiced ubiquitously in male locker rooms across America. Even in adulthood, I was like a chaste Catholic school girl in the changing room. My towel becomes a pleated skirt as I slip off undergarments like a clumsy burlesque performer. The act is done with my back to an empty audience, desperate to protect my body’s most vulnerable bits from someone who isn’t actually watching.
Why are young men still so reticent to show skin in a culture that shares so much?
There are those, like Euphoria’s Nate, who avert eye contact in the hopes their feigned disinterest in cock will mask their true penile preoccupation. If their eyes are windows into a queer soul, they make sure to use blackout curtains while disrobing around men. Then there’s the self-obsessed heterosexual character who fears a gay man’s lust-filled gaze. Pompously assuming he’s worthy of sexual attention, he’s terrified homosexuals will eat him with their irises. The Golden Globe for Most Insidious Gymnophobe goes to the man who initially seems unabashed by flashing his booty. Only after unrobing, he shows his true colors by slapping asses, snapping towels, and making crude gay jokes as a means to mask his underlying insecurities.
Unlike these self-conscious archetypes is The Grandpa, who struts around locker rooms without worry. He droops and dangles as he walks the length of a locker room floor with the carelessness of a runway model. He chats openly about the day’s banalities and actually takes time to dry before putting on his clothes. He’s a soldier of manhood with an unsheathed trouser snake, standing unapologetically nude with his arms akimbo. But this character’s sitcom will soon be canceled. Young men don’t act this way.
Internalized homophobia isn’t the only reason we fear nudity. Psychoanalyst Dr. Vanessa Sinclair says, “When you think of the phallus in a metaphorical sense…it’s more about who has the power, who has the answer, who has what everyone is looking for. The reality, of course, is that no one has it. No one has the answer or the power, ultimately. They only do when others believe they do. As long as you are not fully exposed, you can keep people thinking that you have it.” Is it possible that 21st-century towel-changers never get naked in front of other men because they don’t want to be exposed for their lack of power?
The penis is equated with a man’s self-worth, and exposing it to the world is a dangerous and vulnerable act.
We are, after all, obsessed with dicks. The Power Thesaurus counts 517 synonyms for the word. Cock is an inextricable part of our lives. But for an appendage so small, we expect so much. The male sex organ isn’t merely something we describe scientifically. The host of words we use — machine, mickey, one-eyed monster, schlong, pee-pee — call to mind masculinity, virility, and weakness. We venerate men for large endowments and chastise those with less exemplary stats. The penis is equated with a man’s self-worth, and exposing it to the world is a dangerous and vulnerable act.
None of this Millennial gymnophobia is innate. It represents a cultural shift that began in the 1990s and changed the landscape of modern American locker rooms. In 1993, Bill Clinton signed the antigay military policy Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Commander Craig Quigley, a spokesperson for the Navy at the time, said “Homosexuals are notoriously promiscuous,” and if they were present in group showers, heterosexuals would have “an uncomfortable feeling of someone watching.” DADT effectively barred homosexuals, or at least ones living out and proud, from service.
In 1994, the ACLU threatened to sue a high school in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania over its mandatory shower policy. Desperate to avoid a lawsuit, the district decided to drop their shower requirement. Schools around the country took note, and in 1996, the New York Times reported that shower-free gym classes were becoming the new norm. Kids still got sweaty, but rather than lather post-gym, they’d cake on deodorant for the rest of the day. An eighteen-year-old quoted in the article said “Standing around together naked? Oh no, man — people would feel really uncomfortable about that.”
By the time I entered middle school in 1999, the tiled rooms meant for group showers were obsolete. They’d been relegated to the same dark corners as telephone booths — forgotten places drunk people illegally use as public toilets. For Millennials and Centennials, the days of showering together are history.
Maybe this isn’t so bad. My father, who began teaching physical education in public schools in the 1970s, notes the cases of harassment, bullying, and general discomfort felt by students when group showers were common. I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with the trauma in 1999, and I’m thrilled young people don’t have to deal with it now. I wonder, though, if this lack of nudity is truly helping our youth. If we’re never forced to deal with the reality of our nude bodies, their mystery and shame become an insidious mold. I’m ready to take out the Clorox and get to work, but locker rooms are now built on a foundation of toxic gymnophobia and we need more than a bottle of bleach to fix the problem. We need to normalize nudity where we see it most — on-screen.
HBO became my generation’s penis pioneer in 1997 when Oz, a drama about inmates at a correctional facility, televised full-frontal male nudity. The premium cable network has been the leading purveyor of dick cinematography ever since, with copious amounts of cock on countless shows — most recently, Euphoria. One might assume Americans would be a little less gun shy with this much exposure to peckers in popular culture, but one trip to the gym teaches us otherwise. Thankfully, Euphoria’s graphic locker room shot of 21 penises of all shapes, sizes, and colors (the most ever seen in one tv episode) is at the forefront of changing the paradigm.
After Euphoria’s second episode aired,Euphoria’s 30 Penises Scene Was Pointlessly Gratuitous When It Didn’t Have to Be (note the exaggeration in number). I whole-heartedly disagree. In a culture where talking about dicks is commonplace but showing penises is gratuitous, our dick problem is much larger than a few inches. Euphoria made viewers uncomfortable, titillated, and even disgusted by what they saw on screen: the things we’re too afraid to show and see ourselves. I applaud HBO for forcing us to reckon with a dozen pecks of pickles. I wish more tv shows and movies would follow suit so we could see the male form as more than an object worthy of shame or sexualization; to understand that a pecker isn’t powerful — it’s as ordinary as an elbow.
Let’s demystify the dick together. I know it’s uncomfortable changing underneath that towel. I know the nagging voice of shame, however loud, is annoying to hear. Fuck it. Walk to the shower naked. Next time you’re in the locker room, be part of the change you wish to see in America’s gymnophobic world.
Share All sharing options for: Former Patriots receiver says they ‘played gay all the time’ in NFL locker room
There’s been a lot of chatter this week about a accompanying podcast at Wondery, about the life of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. We’ve been reviewing the entire series and considering it before commenting on it here on Outsports, but there is one interview in the first episode of the podcast series that jumped out at me.
Brandon Lloyd, a receiver with the Patriots in 2012, said in the podcast series that his locker that season was between those of Hernandez and tight end Rob Gronkowski. Lloyd said in the podcast fellow receiver Wes Welker “warned” him about Hernandez when Lloyd got to the team.
“‘He’s going to have his genitalia out in front of you while you’re sitting on your stool,’” Lloyd said Welker warned him. “‘He’s going to have his towel and try to dry off in front of you while you’re sitting at your locker. He’s going to talk about gay sex. Just do your best to ignore it, even walk away.’”
To be sure, “gayness” was a part of the Patriots locker room, according to Lloyd.
“We played gay all the time. We played grab-ass, flippin’ towels, all the cheesy stuff that happens in sports movies where they lampoon an NFL or sports locker room. It happens.”
Given Lloyd played for six different NFL teams over the course of 11 seasons, I imagine it’s safe to say Foxborough wasn’t the only place he saw this.
Yet Lloyd said Hernandez’s behavior took the playful homoeroticism to a place that made some guys feel uncomfortable.
“But the things he was talking about was more-so, it was more graphic than us slapping each other on the ass and laughing and giggling like normally happens in a male locker room.”
Lloyd’s comments are enlightening for a couple of reasons. Hernandez was gay, bi, queer or any other letter of our community. The man’s dead and only he can tell us. Yet it’s clear the guys in the Patriots locker room felt he wasn’t just another straight guy. And with him in the locker room they continued to play “grab ass,” slap each other’s bare asses and act, as Lloyd called it, “gay.”
Gronkowski himself has said he’d be cool with a gay teammate. Other current and former Patriots have shared the same attitude about a gay athlete in the locker room.
As we’ve said for years, having a gay, bi or queer teammate in the locker room just is not a big deal to most guys today, or even, in this case, at least six years ago.
Yet the other piece of the puzzle — Welker’s warning, Lloyd’s seeming unease with Hernandez’s “gay talk” — also points to a dynamic that it’s all fun and games between the guys as long as it doesn’t go TOO far. Talk about actual gay sex might make all the “grab ass” just a little too gay for some guys.
I can pretty much understand where they’re coming from. Talk about sex between men and women certainly makes just about anything way too straight for me.
You can listen to the entire series about Hernandez, including the interview with Lloyd, at Wondery and on iTunes.
More from The Body Issue
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s July 21 Body Issue. Subscribe today.
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.
More from The Body Issue
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s July 21 Body Issue. Subscribe today.
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.
Former Division III linebacker Scott Cooper talks about his acceptance in the locker room as an openly gay football player.
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!'“
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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.“
San Francisco 49ers players pray in the locker-room shower before Super Bowl XIX against the Miami Dolphins. Michael Zagaris/Getty Images
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?“
Sometimes the shower is even the place for meetings with the coach. Popperfoto/Getty Images
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.