The National Football League has been fighting back since the Super Bowl against negative reports and offensive comments from within its unfriendly confines that the most popular pro sports league is setting a bad precedent on gay marriage, homophobia, and hiring discrimination when it comes to sexual preference. But if a new report about an NFL player coming out comes true, the league could find itself opening up to an unprecedented reality — and might find itself as the surprise leading voice on gay rights in sports.
CBS Sports' Mike Freeman claims there is a gay player in the NFL currently mulling whether he wants to reveal his homosexuality to the public over the next few months. Whispers and asides about gay football players have floated through media reports ever since the poisonous outbreak of coverage broke out this year, but this the first report of the big moment actually arriving for the NFL. Per Freeman:
Based on interviews over the past several weeks with current and former players, I'm told that a current gay NFL player is strongly considering coming out publicly within the next few months -- and after doing so, the player would attempt to continue his career.
This player's true concern, I'm told, is not the reaction inside an NFL locker room but outside of it. The player fears he will suffer serious harm from homophobic fans, and that is the only thing preventing him from coming out. My sources will not say who this alleged player is.
This would obviously be a big step forward for the NFL. Heck, it was just the end of last season when San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver said he wouldn't accept a gay teammate in the locker room. That happened right before the Super Bowl, and it briefly opened up a dialogue about gay rights in the NFL. Except that dialogue quickly took a turn for the awful, when some of Culliver's 49er teammates made more unseemly comments about gay rights.
In the intervening months, the NFL suffered compounding embarrassments on the equality front, even as other leagues made strides. At the NFL's annual rookie combine, where new recruits show pro scouts their on-field skills in a physical job try-out and in-person interviews, NBC's Dan Florio reported that the sexual identity of the scandal-ridden Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o was the "elephant in the room" during evaluations from team executives. "Teams want to know whether Manti Te'o is gay. They just want to know. They want to know because in an NFL locker room, it's a different world," Florio wrote. A wave of criticism followed. Florio couldn't or didn't name a team or executive who asked the questions, and Te'o didn't speak out on the issue. But then University of Colorado tight end Nick Kasa told an ESPN radio station teams were outright asking if he was gay. Kasa told ESPN Radio Denver that he had been asked, point-blank: "Do you like girls?" Things were downhill from there. The league faced even more criticism, and some wondered aloud whether the questions from execs were even legal under the league's collective bargaining agreement. The league eventually dismissed the questions as "banter," but said the NFL found it "disappointing and embarrassing” and announced work with gay rights groups on how to better the league's equality policies.
But if an NFL player were to come out and continue his career, that would change everything. The NFL would become the first major sports league to ever have an active, outwardly gay athlete. Major League Soccer's Robbie Rogers came out and subsequently retired from competition earlier this year. Baseball may be close, according to an outspoken football player. And, well, the best the NBA is doing on the gay rights front is a tweet from Kobe Bryant about slurs from fans. It would be a watershed moment, in the most testosterone heavy of sports, and turn all the questions into potential answers, almost immediately. How does a league react when the rumored becomes reality? How do its fans? Does acceptance follow, or sad shame?
One person who seems concerned about a player coming out is NBC's Florio, who wrote a rambling, barely coherent reaction to Freeman's report on Monday. It's so bad it spawned a hashtag mocking Florio's writing. Florio seems to assume that the mystery player might be a lesser known athlete on his way out of the league attempting to stay relevant:
“The player would attempt to continue his career” after coming out, Freeman writes. This suggests that the player may not currently have a team, or that the player believes he may not make it onto the final 53-man roster of the team for which he currently plays.
We’re reluctant to apply cynicism to what would be a watershed moment for pro sports, but it would be naive to assume, given the team-first focus of football, that a gay player thinking about coming out of the closet hasn’t considered both how the move could hurt him and how it could help him. For a marginal player who may be on his way out of the league, the indirect benefit of coming out could be getting another chance to play from a team that chooses to embrace diversity — or that doesn’t want to be perceived as shunning it.
Literally no one else among the many loud voices on the issue of gay rights in sports has publicly come to that conclusion. Apparently Florio doesn't consider "being the first openly gay athlete in any sport" enough of a challenge to overcome that one might consider retirement, like Rogers did. Apparently the public outing of an NFL player is being preempted by public shaming.
The mystery NFL player would have the support of at least two NFL players: the Baltimore Ravens' Brendon Ayanbadejo and the Minnesota Vikings' Chris Kluwe — the two most outspoken players in the league on the issue of gay rights. In a USA Today interview released Monday evening, Ayanbadejo actually guessed that baseball would have an out gay athlete before football does. He was not responding directly to Freeman's report, though, and it's unclear whether he was aware of it before the interview began.
Still, Kluwe and Ayanbadejo are pressuring the Supreme Court to legalize gay marriage with support from 212 Capitol Hill politicians and one former U.F.C. champion as the Court takes up Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. The two players also recently picked up support from another prominent NFL player: Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, who wrote about why he supports the gay marriage movement in The New York Times over the weekend:
I don’t know how to explain to [my daughters] what “inferior” means or why their country treats our friends as such. I don’t want to tell them that “Yes, our friends love each other just like Mommy and Daddy love each other, but that their love is considered ‘less than.’ ”
After all this, one brave man could force the NFL to tell a much different story. Whether the league's approach, from executives to players to fans, will be a loving one — well, anything can happen in football.