For the next two weeks we're running a daily series of our conversations on the red carpet at the ESPYs. This is the first in the series.
By the time New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski approached me on the red carpet at the ESPYs, I’d already talked to a dozen professional athletes. To me, the questions I asked each one of them about the potential of having a gay teammate had become de rigueur.
So I was taken aback a bit when Gronkowski stepped away from me upon hearing I was "with Outsports, we call it ESPN for homos." The man who had quickly become one of my favorite athletes on my favorite team was about to be the first pro athlete to refuse an interview with me about gay issues in the NFL.
Gronk said he had no problem with me, he was just afraid of saying something wrong. I understood where he was coming from. While he’s been the darling of the media at times since first appearing in the NFL in 2010, he’s also been the target of some nasty attacks by the media and fans. It seems every time he opens his mouth or appears in the media, he gets roasted for it.
In his rookie season he appeared in a photograph with a porn actress. He was forced to apologize.
Hours after losing the Super Bowl, he was seen dancing shirtless at the Patriots’ post-game party. Many fans and some in the media took him to task for what they deemed “celebrating a loss.”
Earlier this year in a public game of “F, marry, kill,” he said he would “F Tebow to take his virginity.” I imagine he apologized to Tebow for it at some point.
And just hours before the ESPN red carpet, revealing photos and video of him for ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue surfaced, prompting some Patriots fans to question his dedication to football (after setting the NFL single-season record for touchdowns by a tight end).
Now some guy wanted to talk about gay stuff? Danger, Will Robinson! Danger! He didn’t know what I was going to ask, and it could have gone in a crazy direction. Those naked photos were top-of-mind for him and everyone on that red carpet. Roiling in his mind, I was going to have a field day with them.
Plus, nobody gets on your case about saying the wrong thing like the gays. People who utter “sexual preference” are quickly reprimanded. Referencing “homosexuals” instead of “gay people” has become a taboo. To Gronkowski, a guy with little filter who has no problem speaking his mind, the interview spelled certain doom.
Wade Davis, the openly gay former NFL player, knows where Gronkowski’s fear is born.
“You take me a year and a half ago, I’m probably gonna say some derogatory stuff because I just didn’t know,” Davis said. “For example, I didn’t know the term that ‘transsexual’ is offensive to some people.”
Davis lamented our culture that demands perfection from people in the public eye and crucifies them for any slip-up, instead of using that mistake to open up a dialogue.
“We put celebrities on this pedestal where we never let them be imperfect,” Davis said. “When I was at the White House and I got to take a picture with [actor] Matt Bomer, he wouldn’t relax because he had to take the perfect picture. He’s under such scrutiny because he has to take the perfect picture every time. I feel bad for allies who feel like they just can’t be human and lead normal lives.”
It was only a few seconds before Gronkowski turned and walked back to me. He didn’t have to. San Diego Charger Takeo Spikes and the folks at Young Hollywood were right next to me, wrangling him for an interview as well (as was pretty much everyone on the red carpet that day). He gave me time for two questions.
“Have you ever played with a gay teammate?” I asked.
He thought for a moment and said he didn’t know of any.
“How would you feel if one of your teammates on the Patriots came out of the closet this season?”
This time he didn’t pause.
“If that’s how they are, that’s how they are," Gronkowski said. "I mean, we’re teammates so, as long as he’s being a good teammate and being respectful and everything, that’s cool.”
And with that, Gronkowski added his name to the growing list of professional athletes who would welcome a gay teammate. Because of the way we treat celebrities in our culture, it nearly didn’t happen. As a fan of the player and his team, I was proud he got past his fears of the potential backlash and gave me a minute of his time.
Some fans in Boston will now roast him for answering the questions. They’ll find something wrong with his initial refusal of the interview, or how he answered a question, or the fact that he was at the ESPYs at all instead of rehabbing his ankle.
Still, the vast majority of people will get the power of that brief interaction outside the Nokia Theater.
“Just the fact that Gronkowski was willing to be interviewed by you for a gay Web site," Davis said, "it’s powerful to somebody."
PHOTO: New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski during media day in preparation for Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE