The NFL doesn’t have a single active openly gay player. Neither does the MLB, NBA or NHL. Soon, however, the tides may begin to change on this issue.
This afternoon, the Supreme Court will listen to arguments against California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in the state. While many look at this is an issue for each state to deal with independently, for the NFL it has become a national issue.
Behind the efforts of linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, punter Chris Kluwe and linebacker Scott Fujita, there now exists “The Athletes Brief” (the entire brief can be found here) on same-sex marriage equality. It will be presented to the Supreme Court on behalf of the NFL. This is a stride in the right direction for professional sports, and the impact could be felt around the world.
“Brendon and I have emphasized all along that athletes have a special message when it comes to welcoming others as friends and teammates, without regard for their sexual orientation,” said Kluwe. “We’ve made that point before in some unique ways, and we felt we had a special perspective to offer the Court in a very serious case about equality.”
NFL Players Association President Domonique Foxworth backs it, as does the NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith. So too does openly gay Golden State Warriors President and former NBA Executive Vice President Rick Welts. Other names who have signed off include: Marie Tillman, Russell Simmons, Kenneth Faried, Donte Stallworth, Ben Haggard (rapper: “Macklemore”) and Ryan Lewis (producer: “Macklemore”).
“Guys are more accepting than they used to be,” said linebacker Scott Fujita. “Even those who raise personal objections to homosexuality, some of whom are good friends of mine, would still be able to coexist and accept a gay teammate."
Perhaps, behind the support of all the aforementioned names and a USA Today column by NFLPA President Foxworth in support of gay marriage, the NFL may in fact be the first professional sport to welcome an openly gay player. Foxworth believes this to be among the front lines of civil rights and could see a change of culture behind his ringing endorsement very soon.
“Based on interviews over the past several weeks with current and former players,” writes Mike Freeman, NFL Insider at CBS Sports. “I'm told that a current gay NFL player is strongly considering coming out publicly within the next few months.”
In a way, it’s fitting that the story of the first openly gay active professional athlete is breaking around the same time as the upcoming movie on Jackie Robinson is coming to theatres. As Ayanbadejo notes in the press release for “The Athletes Brief," same-sex equality can be viewed as the 21st century fight for racial equality.
“And that's why we hope that when the first openly gay NFL player steps forward, he will find not a wall of opposition, but a strong and caring defensive line,” said Foxworth. “We'll have his back.”
The comparison to Robinson is certainly not direct, but Freeman also explains that the player has a fear of the public reaction more than that of his teammates. With the suffering Robinson faced from opposing crowds as the first black player in the MLB, Robinson also received overwhelmingly positive support from his teammates. It is the hope of those like Scott Fujita that believe NFL players would show similar support to their teammate.
"I honestly think the players of the NFL have been ready for an openly gay player for quite some time now," Fujita continued. "Trust me, the coming out of a player would create much bigger waves outside the locker room than inside.”
Perhaps the fear can be overcome by recent news as reported by The Washington Post. According to a recent poll, an all-time high 58 percent of Americans believe gay marriage should be legal. This is a huge improvement from 10 years ago, in which only 37 percent of the nation supported the notion.And according to The Los Angeles Times, 14% of adults have "changed their mind" and are now in favor of gay marriage.
The report also notes that Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 (a target demographic for sports fans) now support gay marriage at a record high rate—81 percent.
So how do we know if the NFL is ready to accept this “radical” change?
First, the question of homosexuality in regards to NFL prospect Manti Te’o needs to subside in the scouting reports.
"It's been described to me as the proverbial elephant in the room, and I don't think anyone knows how to solve this dilemma yet,” said Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk and NBC Sports, in response to the fact that the man who duped Te’o admitted to being in love with him. “They want to know what issues they may be dealing with down the road.”
What makes the NFL front offices so curious that this situation has become a ‘dilemma’ and ‘elephant in the room’ for NFL teams? Sexual orientation, after all, is simply that and should not be discussed as an “issue” to be “dealt with.” You would imagine that it is this type of rhetoric that Kluwe and Ayanbadejo wish to combat in the very near future.
Even NBA star and Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant responded to someone who used homophobic libel on Twitter, and he told the fan to take that word out of his vocabulary. Bryant was once fined for using a slur to a referee and admits he has since learned from his mistake.
Next, a productive use of time would be to open the dialogue on gay marriage to the public. For instance, the MLB just hosted a conference on LGBT athletes and homophobia in sports during their “Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities” campaign. The goal was to increase interactivity and create a sense of ethos for those previously unexposed to these issues.
"We're seeing a transformation in the nation,” said Wade Davis, openly gay former NFL cornerback. “We're seeing coaches who are much more empathetic.”
Take a look at the “You Can Play” project to see how the world continues to evolve and combat homophobia in sports. The goal is to remind young athletes that sexual orientation should be irrelevant in sports, promoting a sense of equality and tolerance in all walks of life. Read the Chris Kluwe article on why "Prop 8" matters. Check out the Scott Fujita op-ed on acceptance.
If the NFL were to support the first active openly gay player in professional sports, the league would be making a great stride for social rights around the world. This would be an impactful journey for the organization and one that would bring lots of positive press and attention to the league. Most importantly, it would help the public become more accepting of these issues if they learned that one of their favorite players was gay.
The players have spoken: it's time for a change.
“It would be in the best interest of all Americans,” said Foxworth, “for the Supreme Court to strike down discriminatory legislation that denies gay and lesbian couples the right to marry.”