Also: A dozen NFL players tell Outsports they would support a gay teammate
Ahman Green was about 10 feet away, kneeling as he changed out of his cleats. He had just made some former NFL players look silly as he juked his way toward the end zone in the NFLPA’s Premiere League flag football game last Friday at UCLA. His team lost that day, but he looked like he hadn’t lost a step since he led the NFL in rushing almost 10 years ago.
I went to the event on a mission: Talk to NFL players about gay athletes and homophobia. I’d been credentialed to attend the event by the players union. But the players didn’t know I was coming. They didn’t know a gay guy would be roaming the field looking to talk about gay issues.
As I watched Jesse Palmer, Eddie George and "The Freak" Jevon Kearse ready for their game, I was intimidated. My head spun reason after reason to not talk to them. This wasn’t the place. These questions were too out-of-left-field. And most loudly: These guys didn’t want to talk about this shit.
As Green finished lacing his street shoes and rose back to his feet, I was overwhelmed with my own words: I’ve said for years that reporters should ask these questions. There was no reason not to. What were they afraid of? In that moment I knew what they were afraid of. That’s exactly why I approached the four-time Pro Bowler.
"I'm from Outsports. We cover mostly gay issues in sports, and homophobia in sports," I told Green. "Have you ever had a gay teammate?"
There. Phew. I threw it out there. Now I just had to watch for his hands swinging at my head. Surely he’d try to slug me. Maybe I was hinting that he was gay. Maybe I was coming onto him. Whatever was going through his head, I was ready to duck.
"In our sport, to be honest, I think it would be hard for any guy to come out while he’s playing," Green said. "And that’s not a happy thing to say. The gay community is just like everybody else, but they’re treated differently. It’s a double standard. If a guy was gay, he wouldn’t come out while he was playing. He knows the possibility of the scrutiny he might face from the locker room, which would be unfair. I am very open-minded. It is what it is. People are born that way. You can’t control it. Just like you’re white, I’m black. But a lot of people don’t think my way. I wish they did, because then there wouldn’t be guys who wanted to stay hidden."
Huh? I’m sorry, what did you just say? I thought NFL players were deeply homophobic, ready to drive a gay teammate from the locker room the first time he glances at a dropped towel.
"Social change has been coming around for the last 20 to 30 years," Green continued. "I was born in 1977. A lot has changed since 1977 from issues with sports, with government, with social issues like this. I’m a big advocate of people, let them live. They’re just like us. They want to live. They want to have a family. And to give somebody a headache just because that’s the way they live, that’s unfair just like it was back in the 60s with white and black issues. Same type of stuff."
Ummmm…excuse me? This is Ahman Green. The guy carried the football for Brett Favre. A lot. On the NFL all-time rushing yards list he’s in the top 40, ahead of Roger Craig and Larry Csonka. He’s the Green Bay Packers franchise leader in career rushing yards, yards in a season and rushing yards in a game. He. Is. The Man. And from the most-storied franchise in the NFL.
Yet here he was talking to me about gay shit.
A friend of his then hollered at him to pull him from me. They had to head out. Interview: Over. I thought.
"I’m gonna finish this interview," Green yelled back.
Wow. OK. So this NFL superstar is telling his friends to hang tight. He wants to talk to the gay guy some more. I didn’t know what to say, but…OK. So I asked him if he has any gay friends or family members.
"My half-sister, my wife has several cousins. And I had a girlfriend in high school, her mom’s friend was a gay guy. And it was no problem."
Did you just say your sister is a lesbian?
"Yeah. We didn’t find out until she got older. She didn’t come out to us. I just found out two to three years ago. We were talking through Facebook. I was looking at her pictures on Facebook, and I was seeing rainbows, and I was like, OK, I know what that means. There was another girl in her pictures. And I was like, all right, cool."
Green also told me his brother was gay. Despite having a child with his former girlfriend, his brother eventually came out, also in the last couple of years.
"That’s what society forces gay people to do, to hide. Eventually they’re like, forget it man, this is how I want to live, and let it be known. So I can breathe."
As we talked, the interview reminded me of the first time Michael Irvin told me about his gay brother. It was slightly guarded, in passing. But he quickly warmed up and was so thrilled to have someone to talk to about it.
The only qualm Green had with his gay siblings was the fact that they waited so long to tell him they were gay.
"It’s no problem for me," he said. "If anything, I’ve got your back. For one, you’re my family. Number two, that’s who you are."
Green said he had found acceptance of gay people long ago. Born in Nebraska, he was raised in Los Angeles. He’d met many gay people in his youth, and that helped shape his perspective of other gay people.
Prior to the Packers, Green played football at the University of Nebraska. Ron Brown was a receivers coach at the time, and Green remembers him fondly.
"I just knew he was a good coach, he motivated us to be the best we could be on that football field, and anything outside of that, he always tried to teach us to be a well-rounded person."
Since then, Green has heard smatterings of Brown’s anti-gay preaching and his crusade to prevent protection for gay people in Nebraska.
"Each person believes in something. That’s what he believes in. To him that’s right. To other folks, that’s not quite the right way to look at things, because it’s 2012. Times have changed."
As I shook Green’s hand and watched him walk away, I reflected on the thoughts that raced through my head just minutes before. I’d pegged this NFL superstar, who once resided on my fantasy football team, as a homophobe. I assumed he was as intolerant as the stereotypes would have me believe.
I couldn’t have been further from the truth.
That conversation gave me the confidence to talk with Eddie George, Jevon Kearse, Robert Griffin III, Trent Richardson and a bunch of other former NFL players and rookies. We’ll write about what we heard from them, and which one played with a gay teammate in high school, on Wednesday.
PHOTO: NFL former player Ahman Green during the Tazon Latino VI flag football game as part of Super Bowl XLVI festivities at the Indiana Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-US PRESSWIRE
PHOTO 2: CHICAGO - DECEMBER 13: Ahman Green #34 of the Green Bay Packers runs against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on December 13, 2009 in Chicago, Illinois. The Packers defeated the Bears 21-14. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)