When it comes to the NFL’s willingness to accept an openly gay player, some think that the absence from the NFL of an openly gay player proves the league isn’t ready.
Under that standard, the NFL may soon be ready. Ready or not.
Mike Freeman of CBSSports.com reports that “a current gay player is strongly considering coming out publicly within the next few months — and after doing so, the player would attempt to continue his career.”
Per Freeman, the player fears the reaction not from within the locker room, but from homophobic fans. And that’s a legitimate concern; the combination of paying for a ticket and supporting a team and consuming a little alcohol (or a lot) turns normal people into loud, classless, profane jerks who will do and say anything to get under the skin of the members of the visiting team. And sometimes the members of the home team.
We’ve been discussing the issue of gay NFL players with folks in and around the game for the past several weeks, and the consensus is that, because sexual orientation isn’t obvious, a gay football player will be inclined to remain discreet, because football players ultimately are just that — football players. They want to play football, and the fame/notoriety/whatever that comes from coming out will serve only to keep the focus on something other than football.
Most players don’t want to create distractions, for any reason. Players who aren’t stars fear that, if they create distractions, the team will choose another player of relatively equal skill who doesn’t draw attention away from the team.
Team is the key. Most football players are committed to that concept. Drawing attention to themselves undermines the philosophy of team first.
But this doesn’t mean a player who perhaps sees his career ending won’t consider the boost that may come from coming out. That’s why the precise language of Freeman’s report is intriguing.
“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.
Regardless of the motivation or the timing, it will require significant courage for any current NFL player to come out. And we hope that the decision by one gay NFL player to embrace who he is will prompt more to do the same, immediately thereafter. That way, the distraction will be diluted and those who would begrudge people the ability to simply be who they are would have reason to quickly get past an issue that has no bearing on a person’s football ability.