Personal opinions on gay orientation or marriage aside, one NFL player is making sure the league feels the full force of the issue in an effort for change.
Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, released on April 3 after a Pro Bowl season with the current Super Bowl champs, has been one of the strongest voices for the outward acceptance and knowledge of gay athletes in the NFL.
He's pushing the issue to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's doorstep.
The outspoken LB made headlines again on Thursday, claiming that four current NFL players are in the process of coming out to the public over the next few weeks. According to Ayanbadejo (via ESPN), the players are working towards a day in which they would make an announcement together.
The pieces are coming together for such an announcement (per the ESPN release):
We're in talks with a few guys who are considering it. The NFL and organizations are already being proactive and open if a player does it and if something negative happens. We'll see what happens.
In the process, the NFL now finds itself as the sports league with the most at stake when it comes to handling the delicacy of this sensitive issue.
The NFL already has a no-discrimination policy, courtesy of the 2011 CBA. It's part of the reason that San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver drew ire from the league after his pre-Super Bowl comments about the "what if" scenario he discussed with radio host Artie Lange (via NFL.com). Culliver said he would not accept an openly gay teammate in the 49ers locker room.
Currently the NFL is deferring the issue of using sexuality as a profiling tool to state law. As reported by Martin Rogers of Yahoo! Sports, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello has stated that teams are expected to "abide by the law" when it comes to a professional interview. Only 13 of the 32 NFL teams live in states where it's prohibited to ask an employee of their sexual preference.
While the discrimination part of the NFL's stance on this issue is clear, the interpretation of the rule is not. We found that out at the combine, in large part because of a report that Colorado tight end Nick Kasa was asked if he liked girls during the interview portion of a meeting with NFL team personnel.
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o has also drawn attention as a potentially gay NFL athlete, in large part because of the girlfriend scandal that rocked the nation in mid-January. Te'o told Katie Couric in an exclusive one-on-one interview that he was not gay (via the Los Angeles Times).
With NFL'ers like Ayanbadejo and Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe taking center-stage on an issue that's drawing interest on a national level via the Supreme Court, the NFL will soon be forced into action about the current clarity of an otherwise ambiguous rule.
For the sake of fairness, the NFL must find a way to accommodate both sides of the issue.
On the one hand, it is admirable that Ayanbadejo, Kluwe and other NFL players are speaking out for a group of people that feel boxed in by current league standards. As Jim Rome found out during an interview with Ayanbadejo in March, the timing of this issue is coinciding with the release of the movie "42," painting a powerful picture of what the first openly gay NFL athlete could be for those to follow:
You’re going to be our Jackie Robinson player. It’s not about who you’re off the field as long as you’re a great person. It’s about what you do on the field. Go out there, be a great football player. The community, the organization and the players, we’re going to have your back, brother. We got you.
Strong words, no matter your stance.
On the other hand, it isn't fair to shove this issue down the throats of those who are just trying to make a living in the NFL. While taking a stance always shows true character in fighting for personal beliefs, I'm sure there is a large faction of the NFL constituency that cares no more about sexual orientation in football than they do about figuring out who the next player they will hit on the field is.
It's clear that the pro-gay movement is gaining steam. Other NFL players are speaking out about equal rights, and Ayanbadejo's latest comments paint the picture of a 36-year-old linebacker that is refusing to retire without leaving a positive mark on a league he loves.
It looks like it's the NFL's turn.
Goodell and other high-ranking NFL officials are in a precarious position. These are uncharted waters for the league, but the issue didn't exactly demand the highest level of attention during CBA meetings prior to the 2011 season.
The league has generally stood behind its players when news or issues arise that paint the picture of the NFL being an exclusive club that doesn't have any interest in adding a new faction of players to its roll call. Is that out of public relations fear, or is it because that's the kind of league the NFL really wants to be?
It will be the NFL's task to develop a policy that allows gay athletes to come out without the threat of workplace discrimination—present or future—while also harboring a league that is football-first. Of course, that has to include punishment for teams that don't see eye-to-eye with the age-old idea of bullying those who are different than you.
Let's face it—everyone has an opinion on this issue.
Personally, I'm not sure what the right answer is. They don't pay me the big bucks to decide on when and how the NFL should go about making its league more friendly towards all walks of life, but that's the situation that the NFL faces going forward.
The NFL's next move (whatever it might be) should be cautious and well thought out. Just like the Jackie Robinson story, the NFL has culture-changing material sifting through its headlines, threatening to be a jumping-off point for quite some time.