A Gay Athlete Will “Divide a Team”? They Said the Same Dumb Thing About the Military.

The stadium scene.
April 29 2013 5:35 PM

Men in Uniform

Don’t listen to people who say a gay athlete will “divide a team.” People said the same thing about gays in the military.

Jason Collins # 98 of Celtics competes with Ioannis Bourousis # 15 of Armani during the NBA Europe Live game between EA7 Emporio Armani Milano v Boston Celtics at Mediolanum Forum on October 7, 2012 in Milan, Italy.
Jason Collins during a game against the Brooklyn Nets in November

Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

NBA player Jason Collins’ declaration that he’s gay has been followed, thankfully, by supportive messages from peers like Dwyane Wade, Pau Gasol, and Tony Parker. In the lead up to this highly anticipated moment, though, there have been plenty of negative comments from athletes and pundits about the potential negative consequences of open homosexuality in sports.

Chris Clemons, a defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks, posted on Twitter that it would be “selfish” for an athlete to come out, as it would entail “trying to make themselves bigger than the team” and would “separate a locker room and divide a team.” Louisiana State University football coach Les Miles said recently that if a player on his team came out, he would have to assess “how I saw locker rooms and how I saw travel and how I saw staying in hotel rooms and how I saw those things. If that’s not an issue, I think things could be resolved.” LSU running back Alfred Blue also let loose with stereotypes of gay men as unmanly: “Football is supposed to be this violent sport—this aggressive sport that grown men are supposed to play,” he said. “Ain’t no little boys out here between them lines. So if you gay, we look at you as a sissy. You know? Like, how you going to say you can do what we do and you want a man?” (Blue later apologized.) Even otherwise sympathetic commentators, like Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, suggest that having a teammate come out as gay would “create a major distraction for himself, his teammates, and his entire organization.”

Those arguments should sound familiar—every last one of them was tossed around by those who supported the U.S. military’s ban on openly gay troops. It would undermine group cohesion and hurt the mission, they warned. It would mean putting the individual above the group. It would cause chaos in the showers and locker rooms. It would be a “distraction.”

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Yet in the years leading up to the 2011 repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and in the years since its demise, every last empirical argument has been dismantled, leaving only the moral and religious claims of anti-gay advocates in their place. So what are the lessons we can learn from the research and reality of ending DADT as we move into an era of openly gay professional athletes?

First, concerns about privacy in the showers, team cohesion, and mission effectiveness turn out to be unfounded. The data on this are overwhelming. A large body of military, organizational, psychological, and workplace research dating back to World War II shows that it’s not social cohesion but what researchers call “task cohesion” that matters to achieving a group mission. Berkeley psychologist Robert MacCoun, who contributed to a RAND Corp. study that the Pentagon commissioned when it first considered openly gay service in 1993, later published the results of an extensive review of 50 years of research covering nearly 200 publications. MacCoun concluded that “it is task cohesion, not social cohesion or group pride, that drives group performance. This conclusion is consistent with the results of hundreds of studies in the industrial-organizational psychology literature.” In other words, it’s a myth that group members have to share the same values, or even like each other, to work together effectively. The positive correlation between group cohesion and mission performance results not from affection but from group members being mutually committed to the task at hand.

Even if you’re skeptical of this research and believe that social cohesion matters, there’s no evidence that the presence of open gays undermines social cohesion in organizations like the military, the workplace, or sports teams. That’s especially true in today’s society, with acceptance of homosexuality at unprecedented levels. Of course, many group members may not like gay people. But as an empirical question—what is its impact on cohesion and effectiveness?—research shows it’s a nonissue.