When I was little, I wanted to play the piano. My mom was a pianist and I spent many hours alone banging on the keys of her baby grand in our basement trying to make music. But I never learned. My parents chose my sister to take piano lessons while I was signed up to play football instead.
I didn’t complain because I actually liked football. But I loved piano. Years later, when I lived in a senior society house in college, I spent more hours playing the piano in our shared living room. And years after that, I bought a digital piano for my home and tried to teach myself to play.
I never asked my parents why they didn’t let me play piano, but I think it had something to do with society’s understanding of gender roles. Boys were supposed to play sports while girls were encouraged to participate in the arts. That was a problem for me because I liked both.
I’ve been a fan of three NFL teams over the years — the former St. Louis Cardinals, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (when Doug Williams was quarterback) and the New York Giants. I’ve also been a superfan of Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, so much so that I was a little jealous last season when Odell Beckham Jr. arrived and stole the spotlight from my injured hero.
But Beckham won me over with his incredible one-handed catches and thrilling game-saving plays that kept the Giants in contention even when the rest of the team kind of sucked. In his first 25 NFL games, Beckham caught more passes and ran for more receiving yards than any player in NFL history. His touchdown reception against Dallas last season was so amazing that the Cowboys even posted the video on their website.
On the surface, life should be good right now for Odell Beckham Jr. But beneath the surface, Beckham has faced homophobic taunts and anti-gay slurs, both on and off the field, all season long.
A prominent gossip website posted an article a few weeks ago on what it called Beckham’s “most suspect moments.” The article referred to Beckham as a “sassy” baller and discussed his “questionable” behavior. Meanwhile, another website posted a blunt piece this week under the salacious headline: Is Odell Beckham Jr. Gay? The author concluded that “there’s not a shred of evidence to suggest Beckham is gay,” as though homosexuality were some sort of crime to be proven in court.
By the time Cam Newton and Josh Norman arrived at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey last Sunday, rumors had been circulating in the NFL for months about Beckham’s sexual orientation. NFL Hall of Famers Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders report that Beckham has been targeted with homophobic slurs all year by other players in the league. Similarly, the Giants team complained that the Panthers had threatened Beckham with a baseball bat before last Sunday’s game.
Perhaps that explains Beckham’s wildly inappropriate behavior against the Carolina Panthers, where he was penalized three times for unsportsmanlike conduct and later suspended for one game. Beckham appealed the suspension, lost and apologized. To his credit, he made no excuses for his “embarrassing” conduct or his dangerous helmet-to-helmet hit on Norman.
Aside from his childish behavior last Sunday, Beckham has conducted himself admirably. Unlike some past and present players, Beckham didn’t angrily denounce the questions about his sexuality and didn’t try to find a quick girlfriend to prove his heterosexuality. As far as I can tell, he’s said nothing public about his sexual orientation.
So what if he posts videos of himself dancing and clowning around with other guys? So what if he doesn’t have a traditional Black hairstyle? He has the right to be himself. And yet he has endured withering attacks, even on his own Instagram and Twitter accounts, where numerous followers regularly hurl anti-gay insults.
Straight, gay or bi, Odell Beckham Jr. is living his life, and it’s time for Beckham’s homophobic critics to get on with their lives. In a few days, we’ll begin the year 2016, and my wish for my people in the new year is that we finally catch up with the calendar. We live in a wonderful time of change, with a Black president, a woman as the frontrunner to succeed him and gays and lesbians with the freedom to marry their loved ones.
Clearly, we have gay players in the NFL. Even Black gay players in the NFL. Many in the LGBT community would cheer if Odell Beckham Jr. were one of them. But it would be more wonderful if he could live his life freely, regardless of his sexual orientation. For too long, Black men, of all sexual orientations, have been defined far too simplistically, reduced to hypermasculine stereotypes of bravado that don’t allow us to share all of who we are.
We’re not all jocks. We’re not all rappers and thugs. We’re not all sexual creatures. Some of us like to play football and piano. We are human, with all the diversity of human existence that comes with it.
So this year, my Christmas wish for Odell Beckham Jr., and for all the little Black boys and girls out there marching to the beat of a different drum, is that they can live in a world where they are free to be themselves, not who anyone else wants them to be. That’s the greatest gift of all.