Would the NFL Really Support an Openly Gay Player?

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterApril 3, 2013

NFLPA president Domonique Foxworth is confident that several gay NFL players will eventually come out.
NFLPA president Domonique Foxworth is confident that several gay NFL players will eventually come out.USA TODAY Sports

There are gay men playing in the NFL.

We don't know who they are, what position they play or which uniforms they wear. If we couldn't presume before, given the number of former players coming out, NFL Players Association president Domonique Foxworth confirmed it to Baltimore radio station WNST.

We don't know whose sexual orientations tick above "0" on the Kinsey Scale, and to guess would be inappropriate, irresponsible and inaccurate.

Some players have been the subject of rumors or stereotyping, and some have denied being gay. Some closeted players may have come out to some of their teammates. Not one, though, has come out publicly, despite Foxworth and many current players (via Outsports.com) pledging support for any player who does.


Football Is Not for "Sissies"

For decades, gay men have been perceived as "sissies." Weakness has no place in football, and many thought gay men weak, effeminate and unable to do manly things like lift weights and hit people. 

This thinking is wrong.

Associating femininity with weakness is sexist and false—whether talking about mental toughness or physical strength.

Associating homosexuality with femininity is a stereotype, and nothing more. Some gay men express themselves in a feminine way—which is fine—but many do not; you'd never know their orientation if you didn't ask.

Some current NFL stars spend an awful lot of time on hair and getting photographed in fashion magazines, but that has nothing to do with their sexual orientation or their manliness.

There's no question this used to be the prevailing attitude in NFL locker rooms, but have attitudes changed? Now that we know several gay men have been "manly" enough to play football at its highest level, has the stereotype been shattered?

The Military Culture of Football

As I've written before, football culture has its deepest roots in the most socially conservative parts of America. Many players and coaches come from places where gay men not only still struggle for basic civil rights, but for decades faced aggressive and even violent oppression.

Further, World War II created a generation of players and coaches who saw the game—and locker room camaraderie—as a metaphor for, or replacement of, war and military life. Think of how many common football terms come from war: drills, bombs, squads, platoons, the blitz, the trenches, the shotgun and even the "rank" of captain all come from the military.

Homosexuality was forbidden in the American military until 2011, when the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was repealed. For 17 years, gay soldiers had been allowed to serve, as long as they didn't tell anyone and nobody reported them. Before that, it was open season on gay soldiers; they were hunted down and drummed out.

Homosexuality, it was thought, was a divisive force in the ranks. Men had to fight, eat, shower and sleep with each other in the trenches. Injecting sex and all of its emotional and physical complications into those situations would only distract soldiers from their purpose: fighting the enemy, exactly as ordered to do it.

This is a red herring.

Heterosexual soldiers can't turn off their desires because few women are around, and homosexual soldiers don't see all of their comrades as potential sex partners. A person's orientation has no bearing on their ability to fight or be part of their team.

The same goes for football. As retired Pro Bowler Jevon Kearse told Outsports.com

In the game of football, it’s like a war out there. Once you get out on the field, all that stuff is to the side. You’re on my side. I played in the NFL for 11 years, I’m sure there were at least one or two guys along the line that were gay.

It seems the one-for-all, all-for-one mentality of the battlefield can break down barriers too.

The Locker Room

Just like in the military, football players have to fight, eat, dress and shower together. These are bonding experiences; they create an exclusive space that only members of the team belong to.

In places like that, where an "us vs. them" mentality is encouraged, lots of stuff happens that wouldn't be accepted by the outside world. Curse words can fly freely, offensive jokes can be told, ridiculous pranks can be pulled and naked workouts might even happen.

These things can bond a team together, as in "Hey, it's 'just us guys' in here, right?" That sense of camaraderie comes at the exclusion of everyone else, though. Locker-room banter can attack anyone who isn't part of "us."

What happens when one of "us" is also one of "them"?

When women began working in sports journalism, they found themselves having to enter that "just us" territory of the locker room. Many faced subtle—or overt—sexual harassment for it.

In 1990, then-Boston Herald New England Patriots beat writer Lisa Olson was taunted and harassed by several naked Patriots.

There are too many unbelievable quotes in that People magazine story to pull them all out, but then-running back Robert Perryman's is the most relevant: "If she can't take a joke, she ought not to be down here." The jokes, of course, were at her expense; they tried to shame and humiliate her out of their space.

The media, though—like the players—are just there to do their job. Over time, female reporters like Olson proved their professionalism, and today they're accepted in the locker room as much as any of their male colleagues.

In 2009, Bleacher Report's Big 12/Pac-12 Lead Writer Lisa Horne had a great first experience in USC's locker room, proving that attitudes among players and coaches have evolved, at least when it comes to women in the media.

What about gay teammates?

The Robbie Rogers Case Study

Recently, Robbie Rogers, a 25-year-old soccer player on the U.S. national team and English Championship side Leeds United, came out as gay and hung up his cleats in the same blog post.

After an outpouring of support from fans, media and players around the world, Rogers explained his decision in a subsequent interview with The New York Times.

Rogers noted an odd dichotomy; a number of his teammates in England reached out to him with supportive texts or e-mails after he came out publicly, but many of those same teammates participated in locker room banter that “could really be pretty awful,” he said.

“I’m not going to name names — it’s just that pack mentality,” Rogers said. “I remember hearing some of them talk about the possibility of gay players and saying things like, ‘If gay footballers can shower with us, I want to shower with girls.’ And I’m just thinking, ‘Dude, you have no idea what you’re talking about.’ ”

Many fans, media and teammates hope Rogers resumes his playing career. Many of those hope he comes back to MLS and becomes the first openly gay man to play in a first-tier American professional sport.

Rogers explained to The Guardian why that would not appealing:

I don't know if that's really what I want. I'd just want to be a footballer. I wouldn't want to deal with the circus. Are people coming to see you because you're gay? Would I want to do interviews every day, where people are asking: 'So you're taking showers with guys – how's that?'

If you're playing well it will be reported as: 'The gay footballer is playing well.' And if you have a bad game it'll be: 'Aw, that gay dude … he's struggling because he's gay.' F*** it. I don't want to mess with that.

Oddly, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons objected to the idea of an NFL player coming out on that very basis: that the player would be bringing the attention of the sports media world onto himself, distracting from the team and his teammates.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times put Clemons' tweets, some of which no longer appear on his account, into perspective. NFL players may be ready to accept an an openly gay teammate, but may not accept a gay rights activist.

An openly gay pro football player, though, is an activist whether he wants to be or not.

Strength in Numbers?

Perhaps Foxworth is right: It's not that one player will come out, but that many will at once.

If several closeted players came out within a few days' time, perhaps none of them would fully bear that burden. If their teammates knew they weren't one gay player, but one of many, perhaps "them" would become "us" more quickly. Perhaps casual homophobic jokes and slurs told by players and fans would stop in all NFL cities, instead of just one.

Or perhaps the entire situation would get that much worse.


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