I can't express my admiration for Houston Texans linebacker Connor Barwin in strong enough terms after his comments to Outsports.com regarding the possibility of a gay NFL player one day coming out to his teammates and the world in general.
Barwin's comments come on the heels of former pro cornerback Wade Davis coming out and encouraging current NFL players who are gay to do the same. Davis says he made the decision to talk about his sexuality in hopes of inspiring change.
Both Barwin and Davis are to be commended—this is a sensitive and difficult subject that has historically been polarizing, especially for current players—but both need to realize that real change resulting in real acceptance of gay players in the NFL is still a long way off.
Attitudes toward homosexuals certainly are changing in NFL locker rooms, as evidenced by Barwin's comments. Like former NFL players Ahman Green and Michael Irvin, Barwin has a gay sibling, which humanizes the issue for him in an immediate sense. Barwin has a better understanding that gay people are no different from straight ones, save for who they choose to be in a relationship with.
It's somewhat fashionable these days to say that those who are working for equal rights in the LGBT community are on "the right side of history." This may be true in a sense, as studies continue to support that each generation becomes more accepting of homosexuals.
However, even wider acceptance on a societal level won't change some of the more primal attitudes of what makes certain men not only good football players, but what makes them play football in the first place. There is an inherent barbarism to the sport that will always attract less open-minded individuals.
Will we see a gay NFL player come out while he is playing in the next ten years?
In his 2003 book Bloody Sundays, Mike Freeman of CBS Sports wrote extensively about a gay player in the NFL who talked to him on the condition of anonymity. Freeman said that players tend to reveal their real attitudes toward homosexuals when they believe they are in "safe" company—in other words, the company of their teammates.
One encounter Freeman tells of in his book has the gay player in question, referred to as "Scott Thompson" throughout the book, out with teammates at a restaurant when an openly gay couple gets seated across from their table. Within a few minutes, one of Thompson's colleagues nods toward the table and says, in graphic language, that someone should kill "those f***ing faggots."
As Thompson says to Freeman, "This is a guy who I always thought of as one of the most open-minded people I had ever met, then he blurts that...out."
This was not too long ago, a little over 10 years—not 30 or 40. Have things changed in the last decade? Absolutely. Attitudes toward gays and lesbians grow more accepting every day. But the NFL locker room is an environment where these attitudes do not prevail.
One cannot help but think about "Bountygate." Players have placed bounties on each other for simply wearing a different uniform. The possibility that some players would form a bounty pool on an openly gay player is extremely high, no matter how publicly accepting other players may be.
None of this even takes into account the abuse and ridicule an openly gay player would be subjected to off the field. Can you imagine the reception that player would receive at road games? The thug elements we have seen on display at NFL stadiums would be child's play by comparison.
This is not to say that we will never see an openly gay NFL player in our lifetimes. I think the possibility is much greater now than it was even five years ago. But the courage that will be required of that player will dwarf anything we have ever witnessed on the football field.