We admire Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin for proclaiming that he’ll support any gay NFL player who comes out of the closet during his career. And it’s important for more and more people in positions of influence to express similar views, given that gay players certainly have played and are playing every type of professional sport, striving to keep that secret for fear of being bullied, berated, and ultimately rejected.
Ultimately, the issue hinges on the NFL’s ability to ensure that gay players will encounter no hostility in the workplace.
In many respects, football teams have been immune to the societal advances of the last 50 years. Other than racial equality (which still may not completely exist), misogyny and homophobia are alive and well, making it impossible for any player to come out of the closet while still in the locker room.
Tolerance needs to come from the top of the organization, along with a commitment at each level of management to insisting on an attitude and atmosphere of respect. Currently, that’s simply too much to expect. Teams won’t cut Pro Bowlers who don’t want homosexual players in the locker room, period.
The alternative would be to ensure acceptance from the bottom up, with the players banding together to apply pressure to anyone who may resist the presence of a gay player. But even though Irvin now says that the Cowboys of the 1990s would have supported a gay player, we find it hard to believe that the man who stuck a pair of scissors in the neck of Everett McIver would have been leading the charge for inclusion and diversity.
Surely at some point in the 1990s a gay player played for the Cowboys. If he believed that he would have been fully supported and accepted by the organization, he would have decided to stop living a dual life.
Then there’s the question of harassment from fans, a group of folks that no front office can fully contain or control. Though a gay player surely wouldn’t be booed when introduced to the crowd, he’ll hear from pockets of the assembled public hurtful words that he otherwise wouldn’t hear if he remains in the closet.
In the end, perhaps the only way to ever get to the point where sexual orientation is a non-issue in pro sports is for a player to declare his homosexuality during his career, not after it ends. History would possibly regard that player as the new Jackie Robinson, and that status would be earned via the various indignities to which the player would surely be subjected, at least in the short term.
It’s by no means cowardly for a gay player to decline to accept that risk. It will take a special kind of courage to do it. At some point, it’ll happen. And if enough voices immediately express support for the player who becomes the first one to decide to quit living in fear, it may not be long before an “I am Spartacus”-style string of players decide that the burden of secrecy far outweighs the price of the truth.