As the sports world continues to react to Jason Collins coming out as America's first openly gay major pro athlete on Monday, the National Football League is making strides to transform its reputation and prepare for publicly gay players of its own: The league has reinforced its discrimination policy regarding sexual orientation in an internal memo, and an NFL official tells The Atlantic Wire that one outspoken player's social media response to the Collins announcement has already drawn an inquiry.
Shortly after the NBA's Collins revealed in Sports Illustrated that he was gay, Miami Dolphins all-pro wide receiver Mike Wallace sent the first insensitive Twitter message from an athlete in the four major sports leagues: "All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys," Wallace wrote, before deleting the tweet and posting that "I'm not bashing anybody." But his league, seeking to rehabilitate an image that has been perceived as not strict enough about homophobic comments by its players and potentially illegal motivations by its executives, is not taking that for a final answer.
"We are going to review the comment," NFL vice president of communications Brian McCarthy told The Atlantic Wire Monday afternoon. "This underscores the importance of education and awareness."
Because there was no active and openly gay pro athlete before Monday, there is essentially no precedent for Wallace's offending tweet. Indeed, the NFL hasn't even taken punitive action for players' statements on social media. But in the week leading up to the Super Bowl this year, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver told a radio show that gay players "can't be... in the locker room." The league elected not to act in that situation, McCarthy explained, because the 49ers "immediately addressed the issue with the player" — the team publicly chastised its own player, and Culliver went on to book his own advocacy work with The Trevor Project, an organization dedicated to helping LGBT youth overcome fear and self-doubt. Culliver spent a day with the group in the off-season and received due praise for seeming to turn a corner.
The NFL has been looking around that same corner, trying to prepare for what seems like the inevitable: that one or more of pro football players will come out as well. And while many NFL players have spoken out in support of gay rights amidst rumors of a joint announcement and as other leagues have established proactive policies, Wallace's comments seem to underscore what one player told CBS's Mike Freeman Monday: "The NFL isn't ready" for a gay player.
There were reports Monday that the NFL had re-circulated a league memo to team executives reminding them, ever so subtly, about the league's discrimination policies. The NFL's McCarthy told the Wire that the document was passed around Monday morning before the Collins news broke, but discrimination has also been an issue for the league this offseason, amidst reports that NFL general managers were asking about Manti Te'o and at least one other rookie. Those reports were met with an underwhelming response from the league. But this newly public memo outlines discrimination for the age of the out gay player, and it seems to declare the "workplace" as generally everywhere NFL players could say something offensive — perhaps including social media:
The workplace is not just the building in which we work. Harassment often occurs outside the office and can happen anywhere persons affiliated with the NFL are present. In fact, inappropriate behavior can be secretive and often happens behind closed doors or through telephone calls, texting and email. It can take place on the field, in a plane or car, in the locker room, at the stadium, at a meeting, at a team or sponsor event,at a press briefing, in a hotel room or anywhere in the building or even parking garage.
You can check out the full memo below. So far as we know, we're the first to have it: