By Danny O’Neil
It is a place that is both insulated and scrutinized.
A spot where everything is said to be fair game even as one thing has remained off-limits.
It is an NFL locker room, which is both sacred and profane. It is where some of our nation’s very best athletes come together in pursuit of their sport’s highest goal, and somewhere that has never included an openly gay player. That used to be true of the NBA until 12-year veteran Jason Collins came out in a Sports Illustrated story Monday, and is still true in the NHL and Major League Baseball. There have been and certainly are gay players in all of the country’s most popular male team sports, but none revealed his sexuality while he was an active players until Collins.
In the NFL, that might be about to change, according to several reports, and what happens next is going to test not only the tolerance of the men in that locker room and the sensitivity of their language, but the restraint of those who cover, attend and watch these sports.
And if a Twitter post a few weeks ago from a Seattle athlete was any indication, there are going to be some pretty significant bumps along the way.
Who on Gods earth is this person saying he’s coming out of the closet in the NFL?
– Chris Clemons via Twitter, March 26, 2013
Clemons’ question was both accusatory and problematic, sounding unmistakably incredulous that a fellow worker would choose to stop hiding his sexual orientation.
But it is a question that is being asked across the country after a CBSSports.com report that an NFL player was considering coming out and seeking to continue his career. Linebacker Brendan Ayanbadejo recently said that it could be as many as four NFL players who come out.
What happens when they do?
This is an issue that has been addressed in most every other workplace in our country, where it is not only OK to be open about your sexual orientation, but considered wrong to discriminate against someone because of it.
In 2006, Washington’s anti-discrimination laws were applied to protect gay, lesbian and transgender people in terms of employment and housing.
The U.S. military allowed enlistees to be open about their sexuality while serving beginning in 2011. Others, like the Boy Scouts of America, do not allow openly gay members. But those were top-down policies that were imposed as part of official policy.
Both the leagues and teams in American professional sports have indicated they would be supportive of an openly gay player. The fact that no one has come out in the NFL is a result of the culture in the locker room and not the policies of the league.
“The roadblock isn’t at the top the way it has been in a lot of other places,” said Aaron McQuade, the director of sports for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. “In the NFL and in pro sports in general, it’s the culture itself that is the only roadblock to someone having the courage to do this.”
And to understand the power of that statement, you have to stop to consider just how insular the sports world can be for an athlete whose peer group has been composed often exclusively of other athletes, going back to junior high.
The locker room is an alpha-male culture. The conversations can be crass, and the teasing can easily be seen as bullying. It doesn’t take an advanced sociology degree to understand why an NFL player who is gay would choose not to be open about his sexual orientation.
“The stereotypical gay person is not an athlete,” McQuade said. “Now that stereotype is dead wrong. The bullying culture and the rampant homophobia in the locker room has led to so many people dropping out of sports.”
Others have chosen to hide it. Esera Tualo was an NFL nose tackle who came out after his playing career. Cornerback Wade Davis played with three teams, including the Seahawks, though he never made a 53-man roster.
He came out after his playing career.
Davis said the biggest thing in the eyes of his former teammates was how he expected to be treated.
“They wanted to know that they could still talk to me the same,” Davis said.
And once they realized he was the same person with the same sense of humor and the same set of playing skills, the fact he was not attracted to women was no big deal.
“Once they knew they didn’t have to treat me any different, it was fine,” Davis said.
I just think somethings (sic) should be left at home.
– Chris Clemons via Twitter, March 26
Two very different issues must be considered when it comes to having an openly gay player in the NFL.
One, is the reality of how the other players in the league – both teammates and opponents – will react to a co-worker they know is gay. Second, is the attention and scrutiny that will come when the rest of the world knows this player is gay.
There’s a very real possibility that the first issue won’t be nearly as big as the second, as illustrated by Clemons’ contentions. He went out of his way to deny being homophobic, even as he stated that some things should be left at home.
This is problematic. After all, heterosexual preferences don’t have to be left at home. Wives have their names included in the team’s official media guide. Girlfriends are mentioned all the time.
Clemons clearly stated, though, that he had an issue with the idea that a gay teammate would choose to express his sexual preference, something his heterosexual teammates don’t think twice about. His reasons for that, though, might not be related to having a gay co-worker so much as having to deal with the issues that would come with having a gay co-worker in an NFL locker room.
“I’m not against anyone but I think it’s a selfish act,” Clemons said. “They just trying to make themselves bigger than the team.”
It’s a jarring statement, Clemons’ assertion that it’s selfish to stop hiding your sexual preference. He said it would divide the locker room. But it’s important to look at the verbiage again: “It’s a selfish act.” What is a selfish act? What if the selfish act refers not to a player coming out, but the attention that will result from being openly gay in the NFL – not just for that player, but for his teammates.
“He raised a legitimate concern,” said Patrick Burke of You Can Play, a campaign to eliminate homophobic language from sports. “He raised it very poorly.”
Burke’s father, Brian, is a longtime NHL general manager, and his brother came out several years ago.
Patrick is a law student in Boston and a hockey scout with the Flyers, and while he was very clear not to excuse Clemons’ use of the word selfish, he also pointed out that there is some validity to the concerns about the attention it would draw.
“There is the very, very, very real potential that Chris is right and it will become a distraction,” Burke said.
Just not in the way you might think. The distraction might not be the reality of having a gay teammate, but the scrutiny that follows it.
“I think we’re all going to be stunned,” Burke said, by what a non-story it’s going to be for teammates when a player comes out. “I think there’s going to be a big shrug from his teammates, and then they go back to work.”
But an NFL player’s work takes place under the microscope of media coverage.
The reality for a gay male athlete is that even the most understated public expression of affection to another man will be politicized. It would attract huge amounts of attention.
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.
Scrutinizing the reaction of players isn’t wrong. There is the need for watchdogs to make sure that a gay player brave enough to come out isn’t discriminated against or alienated.
But there’s also the very real possibility that the barrage of questions won’t be in the interest of preventing discrimination, but looking for something salacious.
“I don’t think we’re expecting perfection right away,” Burke said. “We’ve all said stuff that was a mistake. That we would take it back if we could. How many of us – at various points in our life – have used the word ‘retarded’ and not realized the impact that word has?”
These are people, most of them in their 20s who have progressed to the top of their profession in an incredibly insulated, hypercompetitive environment. This doesn’t excuse insensitivity or offensiveness, nor is at an argument for maintaining the status quo. It’s merely to point out the reality that there are going to be some bumps along the way.
“Were not expecting the sports world to snap their fingers and know what they’re going to say,” Burke said. “You own up to it. Let’s learn from it. Lets all move on.”
The Seahawks did not respond specifically to the opinions Clemons offered over Twitter. Instead, the team cited its policy:
“The Seahawks organization is guided by overall principles of acceptance and understanding that help us create a culture of respect, equality and inclusiveness both on and off the field. It is our goal to use these core principles and our commitment to passion, character and excellence to empower change within our community.”
It’s a noble goal, and one the team will need to keep in mind when an openly gay player – or players – comes out in the country’s most popular sports league.
Danny O’Neil covered the Seahawks and NFL for The Seattle Times for eight years.
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