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March 29, 2013 at 11:34 PM

Chris Clemons’ difficult dialogue about the idea of an openly gay NFL player

This is one of the more difficult blog entries I’ve written. It might also be one of the most important.

It deals with an issue that is entirely hypothetical at this point and incredibly sensitive.

It’s about sexual orientation in general, American male team sports specifically and the reluctance NFL players have in grappling with the issue.

Before we get started I want to make a couple of things clear:

I believe that honest, respectful dialogue is the best course in any situation, especially in something that is as political as this issue.

I also believe that honest, respectful dialogue is difficult in the best of circumstances and nearly impossible in the 140-character format of Twitter. In that condensed scenario, it’s important to notice what is actually said and not the assumptions about what is meant.

With all those qualifications, let’s get started:

The background: Mike Freeman, a reporter for CBS and someone I admire a great deal, wrote last week about the possibility of an NFL player becoming openly gay and seeking to continue his career. Now, this would not be controversial in any industry in this country except for male, professional team sports. But in that context, even the adjective used to describe the issue is loaded with implications. Controversial? What’s controversial about being openly gay? Divisive? Why should it be divisive unless there is a homophobic reaction to the idea of an openly gay pro-football player.

But the reality is that in many ways American male team sports are a last frontier when it comes to gay rights. And with that, enter Chris Clemons, an NFL veteran and member of the Seattle Seahawks for the past three years:


This sounds exceedingly ignorant, expressing incredulity at the idea an NFL player would be openly gay while also asking his identity.

But back up and strip out the assumptions. There is no judgment in his words, no condemnation.

But it’s unambiguously provocative as indicated by some of the responses:


Seems like a double standard here. After all, do heterosexuals have to leave their sexual orientation at home? Nope. Wives often have their names listed in the team’s official media guide, girlfriends have their pictures posted on Twitter.

The sentiment that sexual orientation should be left at home reeks of some sort of, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that we’ve generally moved beyond in America circa 2013. You don’t have to hide your sexual orientation if you don’t want to. Or at least you shouldn’t.

Clemons’ insinuation that a gay player should remain in the closet has drawn the most condemnation, especially when you consider the following exchange:


Now, before anyone categorizes Clemons as someone who says it’s selfish to express your sexual orientation, look at the exact verbiage again: “It’s a selfish act.” What is a selfish act? If choosing not to hide the fact you’re gay is selfish, well, that is prejudicial.

But what if “the selfish act” is coming out as gay in a very public, very political way while on an NFL roster? Well, then we get to the root of the problem. What defines being gay in a political way? Is it holding a press conference or is it holding hands in public?

Now, I would argue that either act would be courageous and the kind of move needed to integrate American, male team sports. That person would be a pioneer in my eyes.

The reality for a gay male athlete is that even the most understated public expression of affection to another man will be unavoidably politicized. It would attract huge amounts of attention.

If a member of a team felt that having someone openly gay as a teammate put the topic of gay rights ahead of the team’s interest, would he be wrong? Not wrong in a moral sense, mind you, but incorrect because the reality is that the first openly gay athlete in an American male team sport is going to become a lightning rod not only for himself but for his teammates. Do the other men in the locker room oppose him, tolerate him or support him? There will be no neutral. There will be no shortage of questions.

But that reality underscores the difficulty facing a gay athlete, not the gay athlete’s teammate.

Being gay is not a political statement, it is an expression of sexuality that heterosexuals don’t think twice about making. Yet when a gay male athlete comes out, any expression of his sexuality will become political.

I don’t want to single Clemons out, though. He didn’t object to the idea of having a gay teammate. He objected to the idea of having a gay teammate who made his sexual orientation a political issue.

There is a difference there. The problem is that difference is the result of society at large, not the person in particular.

The first openly gay, active NFL player is not political by choice. Rather, his sexual preference and expressions of affection will be unavoidably political because he is openly gay.

Clemons’ Tweets actually recognize this fact. He did not object to any issues of sexual orientation so much as the attention it is accorded. The reality of an openly gay player would become a singularly overwhelming issue for that team.

But whose fault is that? Is it the gay athlete for revealing his sexual orientation or is it society in general and the industry in particular that makes it such an overwhelming issue?

Given that this whole episode took place on Twitter, perhaps it’s only fitting that one of Clemons’ most poignant statements on his position was made when he recirculated the synopsis offered by his teammate Doug Baldwin:


The trouble is that simply being a gay, male athlete in a pro team sport is going to be an event whether the individual wants that or not.

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