Is the NFL Ready for an Openly Gay Player?

Andrew Garda@andrew_gardaFeatured ColumnistJune 14, 2012

The thought is that NFL players will never accept a gay player within their locker rooms.

We might not be giving them enough credit.

That’s the conclusion I came to after reading Cyd Zeigler's Outsports article on interactions he had with veteran players and rookies at NFLPA Rookie Premiere events in Los Angeles in May.

In the process of writing a story about Wade Davis, a former NFL player who happens to also be gay, Zeigler interviewed several former players and rookies.

Not just random bench players either, though that would still be significant. Guys like Javon Kearse, Ahman Green, Eddie George and rookies like Robert Griffin III, Trent Richardson and Coby Fleener.

They didn’t respond hesitantly. Didn’t fall back on "pat" and "canned" answers. They answered honestly, and their responses speaks to a level of acceptance I believe we had no idea existed.

The repercussions of the piece are still being felt as Houston Texans linebacker Connor Barwin was quoted as saying he thinks a player who came out would be surprised at how welcoming people in the locker room would be.

I’m sorry, aren’t these the guys who ram their skulls together and get pulled over on a weekly basis for driving drunk?

Apparently it's another case of the rest of us forgetting that many of these players are smart, well-read and not just meatheads who, without football, would be ramming their heads into walls for sport.

You might point out that Barwin is already predisposed to be positive about it, since his brother is gay.

That’s probably true—as we go through life, our outlook gets changed by our experiences.

He’s not alone in his opinions, though.

Zeigler told me that he wasn’t surprised that some of the players were willing to talk on the record—but that every single one was:

We've known for years that there are many gay-friendly voices in the NFL. But the fact that each of the dozen players I talked to said they knew someone who was gay or had a gay family member...I didn't see that coming.

It’s that life experience which he believes has led to this change in thought, especially for the retired players, many of whom merely assumed that they had had closeted gay teammates during their career, as if that’s just the way it is.

Zeigler said it surprised him a bit, but looking back it made a lot of sense. He also said that it was the veterans who had more to say on the issue, rather than the rookies who just said it was fine and they didn’t care if a teammate was gay:

There's a huge difference in life experiences between a 22-year-old and a 35-year-old. Those veterans have lived life. They've been through what some called the "war" of the NFL. They've been beaten down. They've sacrificed their bodies. And they realize the value of anyone who can do the same.

I would also put out there that there is a good chance that the veterans and retired players, many of whom are African-American, have experienced racism more than once despite their fame and fortune. They know what it is to be treated differently because of what you are, rather than what you do.

Perhaps that is a reason they look at it differently.

As for the rookies, I wonder if the more casual nature of their acceptance is just a sign of the times. Among many younger men and women, homosexuality is just another aspect of a person’s life and not the totality of it.

As young people across America are more accepting, it is reflected in football which, after all is a reflection of our society anyway.

Zeigler agrees:

I think we're in the middle of a watershed moment for gay athletes in sports. We've been building to this moment for years, and last year something dramatic changed. A bevy of athletes came out, homophobia in sports was attacked from every angle, and straight allies stood up and put their faces forward as gay-friendly.

Not only that, he says, but those allies have taken direct and vocal action to change things:

You had almost a dozen Major League Baseball teams make It Gets Better videos. Over 50 NHL players have joined the You Can Play campaign. At Outsports we write story after story of athletes coming out. This is the watershed moment. I'm afraid by the time an active male pro athlete comes out, he won't be perceived as a hero but will be met with, "What took you so long?"

In the article about Barwin, he had an interesting take on how an athlete might come out to his teammates: quietly.

We keep expecting this huge "Jackie Robinson" moment for gay athletes—and that may yet come. However, both Zeigler and Barwin seem to indicate that maybe we’re getting to the point that it could be more of an afterthought.

I can’t help but think Barwin’s way—low key at first, telling the locker room before really going public—might be a good way to go. The locker room is your family—they should know first.

Especially so they can prepare themselves for endless questions on the subject.

Zeigler says it’s hard to say when we might see a male athlete come out as gay. Despite huge moments such as Ellen DeGeneres coming out, and many female athletes in the WTA, WNBA and other sports being out, it isn’t an easy step to take.

He says he wouldn’t be surprised if it happened in a year or in five years—the only real hurdle at this point is an intangible: fear.

Zeigler says that fear may be more unfounded than they realize:

At this point it's unreasonable to believe coming out will hurt a player's career. On the contrary, evidence shows it will help his career. I mean, what's going to happen? A team's going to cut him? His teammates will try to injure him? A fan will try to kill him?

None of that will happen. In fact, coming out is quite the protection from all of that. It's easier to be homosexual in the NFL now than it is to be homophobic. But the fear of the unknown still rests in the heads of those closeted athletes. And it's up to them when they act in the face of that fear.

None of this is not to say that coming out wouldn't take a monumental amount of courage. Even in the most accepting areas of life, it would be a challenge. I can't imagine what a person would have to go through to do it.

At some point, though, someone will.

When that person does, if the players Zeigler has spoken to are any indication, he may have far more support than he ever dreamed possible.


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