San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver's non-apology apology for his much maligned comments on gay players in the locker room won't win him any fans heading into the Super Bowl this weekend, but his offensive remarks already appear to have had an unintended effect: NFL players are finally speaking out about sexual equality in football, a once hushed-up topic that is re-emerging on the eve of Super Sunday.
Culliver told the radio host Artie Lange on Tuesday that "I don't do the gay guys, man," adding that "we don't need no gay people on the team" and that gay players "can't be... in the locker room" — and that gay players should "come out 10 years later after that." All of which obviously led to an uproar across the web, the world of sports, and the gay-rights community, and eventually to Culliver issuing the following statement on Wednesday night:
The derogatory comments I made yesterday were a reflection of thoughts in my head, but they are not how I feel. It has taken me seeing them in print to realize that they are hurtful and ugly. Those discriminating feelings are truly not in my heart. Further, I apologize to those who I have hurt and offended, and I pledge to learn and grow from this experience.
The apology itself has been questioned for its sincerity, but the controversy has, in fact, relaunched a conversation that was never much more than a subplot in the NFL this season. A handful of players, most prominently Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, have taken to the media to back same-sex marriage legislation — much to the chagrin of local lawmakers. And the prominence of the discourse itself has come into question from those outspoken players; Ayanbadejo said on Super Bowl Media Day that he would rather focus on the game:
I don't want to keep touching on that subject, but obviously we're here at the Super Bowl, and it's the pinnacle of sports here in the United States, so I just really want to focus ... A lot of media stuff has come up with 'Ayanbadejo this and Ayanbadejo that,' but I think the most important thing is that I'm here with my team. My focus is on this football game and this is the most important game I've ever played in my life.
After Ayanbadejo was expected to use the Super Bowl week forum to speak out more prominently, his pro-gay stance quickly became overshadowed by Culliver's comments on the same day. And many saw that as a missed opportunity: Here's a man, in the biggest spotlight anywhere, ever, and he's being silent on one of the most prevalent controversies of our time. But it's also understandable, because the Super Bowl is about football and commercials.
But there's been a second wave for the discussion, with players forced to respond to Culliver's comments and, in turn, forced to speak out the great silent politics of pro football. On Thursday Culliver's teammate in the 49ers secondary, Donte Whitner, called Culliver's comments a mistake but said that he accepts the gay community. Whitner told the San Jose Mercury News:
You don't know how that person was raised. Their parents could have been against gay. But I have family members that are gay. If you can accept a family member who is gay, you can accept anybody who is gay. That's the way I feel about it.
And that was echoed by outspoken 49ers receiver Randy Moss, who added:
I don't think we should tear a man's head off or a woman's head off just because of their sexual preference ... I think we're all good people. I really believe we should be able to look beyond that in this day and age. It's here in our world, it's not like it just came yesterday. So for us to act like, 'Oh my God, this is like a bad disease that just hit our country,' it's not.
Kluwe, who we thought might be the most outspoken, actually didn't think Culliver's anti-gay comments were too dumb to address:
The proper response to @cullyinthehouse isn't to mock him for insecurity over gay rights, but to mock him for buying fake Twitter followers.— Chris Kluwe (@ChrisWarcraft) January 30, 2013
There’s not malice in his heart. He’s not an ugly person. He’s not a discriminatory person ... I really believe that this is something that he’ll learn and grow from.
With a four-and-a-half-hour pre-game show on Sunday and about 4,000 SportsCenter segments between now and then, maybe everyone in the NFL — from analysts and former players to Super Sunday competitors and teammates in the locker rooms throughout the league — can learn something, too.