Last Thursday former New York Jet and Carolina Panther Kris Jenkins spent several minutes talking about gays in the NFL on CBS Radio's Boomer & Carton show. It was hard to figure out exactly what Jenkins was trying to say, as he wove together the color pink, hetero sapiens and a call for NFL players to come out. I talked with Jenkins that afternoon and he made it crystal clear: He wants to see the end of homophobia.
"Times are getting tense," Jenkins told Outsports. "Socially, politically, everywhere. One of the things about football is, the platform is huge. It’s the number-one sport in America by far. Politically speaking, the thing we’re talking about is equality. The thing about equality is everybody needs to do their part pushing forward on that. The whole Yes We Can phrase came about because, during his first election, Obama was saying everyone should be able to step forward and make this a better nation. And I took that personally and I looked at what I could do personally to push things forward."
Jenkins said he's long been nervous about speaking up on the issue, because he's afraid other people will jump on him for it. But seeing people through their differences is nothing new for Jenkins, and he doesn't want to stay quiet anymore.
"I have no animosity toward anybody," Jenkins said. "I’m from Detroit, Michigan. I grew up there a Christian in a muslim environment where people found ways to get along. I was there when they kicked the floor out under the auto industry. When that feast-or-famine mentality kicked in, I wanted to work on the football field and get out so I could contribute back to the community."
Jenkins opined about the forces within the NFL that are keeping gay athletes in the closet.
"The whole situation is very frustrating. I am retired. But playing for 10 years, you’re in a profession where you’re pretty much marched in a straight line. Eat this, do that. There aren't a lot of straight men who have the courage to speak out and say, hey, from the people I've met in the LGBT community, I've met some amazing people. I've had a humbling awakening, and they should be respected by everybody. Where it becomes an issue for the NFL, it always becomes about preserving the integrity of the game. And it’s an issue because a lot of the owners are old money, and they’re nervous about ruffling feathers.
"But being a player I don’t think it’s my job to out anybody. I think it should be something they do on their own time when it’s something they’re comfortable with. People who decide they want to stand up for themselves, it’s a beautiful thing. I don’t want anyone feeling they can’t come out and be embraced.
"Some people are afraid, if somebody comes out as openly gay, that it’s going to be the end of football as we know it. But football will adapt and grow with it. Football needs to get back to being what it always has been. It’s a gridiron game. It’s about people going out there and playing every down to their maximum potential, being everything they can be. It’s about team chemistry."
I found the last part fascinating. I haven't heard anyone say an athlete coming out will be "the end of football as we know it." But when I've talked with other pro athletes, many of them have conveyed some real unease about what would happen. And while they may or may not have a problem with a gay teammate, it's not surprising for someone to wonder about the image of the game if they don't have a lot of interaction with gay people.
Jenkins is also certain he played with a gay teammate during his 10 years in the NFL. He remembers one teammate in particular whom he and all of his friends assumed was gay. He also remembers teammates with the Carolina Panthers talking about the issue when Esera Tuaolo came out. Many of them had played with Tuaolo, and Jenkins said none of them cared that he had been gay (though closeted) while playing with them.
"Don’t think for a minute guys in the locker room don’t talk about everything and anything," Jenkins said. "They do."
As more and more athletes are coming out, and as he watches NFL players speak publicly about the issue, Jenkins is finding it increasingly important that he lend his voice to the growing chorus. While he wants equality for everyone, ultimately he's doing it for his children:
"I have three sons. In having my three sons, I want the world they grow up in to be better than the world I grew up in. Whomever they decide to be as men, I want them to be comfortable in this world. I am fiercely loyal to my family and I will protect them. I’m committed to doing my part in this world to change the way things are."
You can find Kris Jenkins on Twitter.
PHOTO: Sam Sharpe-US PRESSWIRE