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The NFL Must Become More Proactive on Gay Rights

Homophobia has been hitting the NFL newswires lately. Chris Culliver made his obtuse comment during the Super Bowl lead up. Mike Florio described how NFL Teams were concerned about Manti Te’o’s sexuality. Colorado tight end Nick Kasa was asked if he liked girls during an NFL Combine interview. This retrograde combination of incidents should be worrisome, but the Shield’s response has thus far been perfunctory and minimal.

Jason Whitlock points out the league could and should have done more. It’s tough to argue with him. You can’t criticize the NFL for not being a progressive force on gay rights. But weighed against other sports leagues and the mainstream business community, the league’s inaction is making it a regressive one.

David Stern set the tone on gay issues for the NBA. It has been almost two years since he fined Kobe Bryant $100,000 for directing a gay slur at a referee. He was both personally and publicly supportive of openly gay executive Rick Welts when he came out of the closet. Welts is now the team president of the Golden State Warriors.

Don Garber, a former NFL executive, has set a similar tone for MLS. Former USMNT and MLS star Robbie Rogers abruptly came out of the closet and quit soccer. Garber tweeted his support for Rogers. If that did not move the meter, it was only because the outpouring of support from MLS players, clubs and fans was strong and immediate.

Even if one assumes the NBA and MLS to be activist libertines, the NFL is behind the mainstream corporate community. Three hundred businesses lent their names to a legal brief arguing against the Defense of Marriage Act. Other major corporations are challenging Proposition 8 in California.

Contrasted with these efforts, NFL actions have been week and ineffectual. The 49ers did damage control with Culliver. A scathing fine or suspension would have sent a message. The league did neither. When the Te’o and Kasa stories came out, with league officials all but implying that being gay was a defect, the league released an impersonal statement, affirming that league policy conformed with anti-discrimination laws. That heavy hand Roger Goodell has been pilloried for using elsewhere was lamentably absent.

The league escapes scrutiny, with the buck passed mostly to the players. We’re told they are the villains. They  could not handle an openly gay man in the locker room. We won’t delude ourselves into thinking NFL (or other) locker rooms are bastions of political correctness and tolerance, but that argument is a cop out.

A majority of Americans now favor the legalization of gay marriage, with even prominent Republicans coming out in support. Among those under 30, the percentage climbs to around 70 percent. Most professional athletes are under 30. Quite a few of them, including Kenneth Faried, Brendon Ayanbedejo, Chris Kluwe and Donte Whitner, have spoken out in favor of tolerance and gay rights. That’s not to say league rosters don’t have their share of homophobes, but the demographics suggest there would be more hostility to gay rights in league front offices than on the field.

If we can presume there are closeted players, we can presume there are players who are aware of said players’ private lives and are unfazed. We can presume there are players with relatives and friends who are gay. We can also presume there are players who, whatever their beliefs, aren’t inclined to be assholes in day to day interactions. Some players, like Mr. Whitlock, might even have learned something from The Wire.

As Charles Barkley pointed out with characteristic bluntness, he has played with gay teammates, every player has probably played with gay teammates and what matters is whether a guy can play. Professional athletes do ridiculous things with alarming frequency, but they are still people. Many of them have dealt with far more from life than those who write about them.

Some may find the notion of a gay player in a locker room salacious. It might create a “media circus.” But judging from other segments of society, it would be far less shocking than some anticipate. The sport’s fabric would not be torn apart. It would not need to be a great player to go down smoothly. The first player to come out from the closet would receive substantial support from fans and from colleagues. The most ostracized person would be the first idiot who said something loathsome.

No player in a major American sports league has come out and kept playing while active. That’s not, as Tony Dungy suggests, because American pro sports leagues aren’t ready for it. We don’t want to minimize the fear of a backlash – propriety can’t protect a player on the field or when the media are shut out of the locker room – but we would suspect many players have internal reasons for staying silent.

Being a professional athlete is hard enough. Not everyone is able or willing to withstand the added scrutiny of being an icon. People come out of the closet to seize autonomy over their personal lives. Becoming the first active gay player in major American sports would mean ceding that autonomy. Unlike Jackie Robinson, they don’t need to do so to pursue their profession.

The NFL may be fostering a hostile environment for a gay player to leave the closet. That starts at the top, when the league has a chance to take a firm stand and stays silent. For an organization like the NFL with such a broad social import, that is unacceptable.

[Photo via USA Today Sports]

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