Chris Culliver Backlash Clouds Real Issue for Gay Players in NFL

Ryan RiddleCorrespondent IFebruary 2, 2013

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 31:  Chris Culliver #29 of the San Francisco 49ers addresses the media during Super Bowl XLVII Media Availability at the New Orleans Marriott on January 31, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The 49ers will take on the Baltimore Ravens on February 3, 2013 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

For the better part of this Super Bowl week, the San Francisco 49ersChris Culliver has dedicated a great deal of his energy to a poorly executed attempt at damage control.

This all comes after the second-year cornerback exposed his deplorable ignorance for the entire world to hear with narrow-minded, homophobic remarks (via Yahoo! Sports).

But are we really that surprised this young, insular individual, enveloped within a hyper-masculine sports sub-culture, could feel the way he does about homosexuality?

This in no way excuses his bigotry or immaturity—but we should, however, be asking ourselves how a man, in such an environment, could even think it acceptable to express such a discriminatory viewpoint. Perhaps the brash opinions so candidly revealed by Culliver on media day were a product of his environment, years in the making.

From the locker room to the government of the United States of America, Culliver is merely lacking the wisdom to see beyond the very world he’s limited to.

For all intents and purposes, this 24-year-old kid from Philadelphia was merely expressing the exact same intolerance taught to him by our very own trusted and respected lawmakers. To watch and listen to the collective world demonize this naïve kid for his comments, it’s as if we forgot our very own military had policies in place directly mirroring Culliver’s sentiments as recently as 2011.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was an official policy of the United States regarding gays in the military. Under this policy, no gays were allowed to openly disclose their homosexual preferences for fear that it “would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability,” as stated in Title 10 of the United States Code.

Any person serving in the military during this time who disclosed their homosexuality would thereby give the military the right, by federal law, to discharge that person from service. This ridiculous policy was put into place in 1993 under President Clinton and remained U.S mandate until as recently as September of 2011.

The tragic ideology expressed by our very own government less than two years prior is fundamentally identical to the opinions conveyed by the man of the hour, Chris Culliver; a guy blindsided by a comedian on media day.

I have spent my fair share of time in NFL locker rooms, and I can say with great confidence that the opinions now infamously proclaimed by Culliver are not rare, isolated examples of backward thinking among NFL athletes.

Unfortunately, this perspective, spotlighted by Culliver, is most likely quietly shared by the majority of football players today.

If you go back and listen to the actual radio interview of Chris Culliver’s insensitive comments, there’s a distinctly casual tone in the questioning. That tone seemed to create a loose atmosphere by which Culliver was lured into feeling as though he was just talking to one of the guys. This mindset, in many ways, was Chris adhering to a social role indicative of his environment. It's an environment within which those comments are not only acceptable, but they’re also expected.

It has always been safer and even natural for the majority of people to follow the crowd rather than rise up as the lone voice of reason. Culliver seemed trapped in this mindset, perhaps ignorant to the battles currently being fought regarding these issues.

The fact of the matter is neither the NFL, nor the countless gay members assumed to be playing within it are really ready to deal with all that comes with either having or being the first openly gay player in the history of the sport.

Having the rare gifts and good fortune to play in the NFL is an opportunity few ever get to experience. The rewards realized from this brief moment in one’s life are both great and plentiful. For any one man with courage enough to rise to the challenge and take on the added stresses and risks of becoming the first openly gay athlete in the NFL would have to be someone extremely exceptional.

We as a society may very well be moving quickly to mend our many years of Chris Culliver-like thoughts and ideals. We are afforded the luxury to be passive observers to those who pioneer a better future; a future forged out of pain, struggle, heartache and eventually triumph.

Fortunately, in the fight for gay rights, many athletes—including Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe—are now stepping up to the plate more than ever. These brave men are paving the way toward a new normal, emerging as true leaders in the fight for justice and our own humanity.

I, for one, welcome the day of this new normal with an open heart and open arms. In the meantime, we must allow for our own prejudices to be tempered, for our own hatred to be lessened and the understanding that sometimes we’re the flawed product of our surroundings, our teammates, our families and even our own country.

There’s a much bigger enemy in this fight than Chris Culliver. He is merely society’s byproduct.


Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and featured columnist for Bleacher Report.