Football players have long been cast as some of the most homophobic men in our culture. Sports, and in particular the NFL, is branded as the last closet because of that perception. Looking in from the outside, the evidence seems to be prevalent. We’ve never had an openly gay player in the NFL, and only a handful of former players have come out after they retired. Various football players over the last decade have shared anti-gay thoughts in the media. Even allies in the sport have said an athlete would have a very hard time coming out in the NFL because of the environment.
Yet when Outsports attended the NFLPA Rookie Premiere events in Los Angeles last week, we were met with a gay-positive attitude from every player we talked to; And some warmly welcomed us with open arms. A dozen different men from various teams, both rookies and recently retired, each expressed support for gay athletes. Many shared personal experiences involving gay friends, family members, and even a gay former teammate. These aren't third-stringers we talked to. These men are NFL stats leaders, national champions and high draft picks. They are the past, present and future leaders of the NFL.
Jevon Kearse was a three-time Pro Bowl defensive end with the Tennessee Titans. At 6-foot-4, 265 lbs., "The Freak" is an imposing physical specimen with a deep voice. He is the epitome of masculinity.
He also told us he would warmly welcome a gay player on his team.
"In the game of football, it’s like a war out there," Kearse said. "Once you get out on the field, all that stuff is to the side. You’re on my side. I played in the NFL for 11 years, I’m sure there were at least one or two guys along the line that were gay."
His former Titans teammate Eddie George, who averaged over 1,100 rushing yards a season for his career, agreed.
"I just don’t care about that," George said. "If that’s what you do, that’s what you do. I don’t hate you because of it or dislike you because of it. That’s not my personal preference, but I respect your decision. I’m not going to like you less or not be your friend because of that."
George, who DJ’d a party for the NFL rookies last Saturday in Hollywood, said he thought a gay teammate would have been accepted on the Titans team that featured him and Kearse in Super Bowl XXXIV.
"I don’t see it as a problem," he said. "I don’t think it would have been a problem at all."
It also may not be a problem for the New York Giants. The defending Super Bowl champions have developed a recent history of celebrating the LGBT community. In 2011, former player Michael Strahan and team owner Steve Tisch publicly supported New York’s legalization of same-sex marriage. That hasn’t been lost on former Giant linebacker Antonio Pierce.
"Some guys have come out publicly and stated how they feel about that," Pierce said. "You’ve got to give them credit, because that’s a tough situation. Just look at what Obama did recently."
Pierce said any man who survives the gauntlet of the NFL deserves respect and a spot on a team, no matter how he lives his personal life.
"You have to accept it because he is a part of your team," Pierce said. "He’s one of the 53 guys. Obviously he’s put in the sweat and the blood and the pain to get there. I’ll never knock him. As long as we can win a football game, I don’t care. As long as we’re winning football games and winning championships, that’s all that matters."
Pierce’s former teammate Jesse Palmer played out his NFL career in two relatively gay-friendly cities. He said neither the Giants nor the 49ers would have marginalized a gay player.
"We always had really good guys in the locker room in New York and San Francisco," Palmer said. "Both of those situations, it was a very close-knight group. I don’t think it would have been an issue. If it’s a teammate, that’s a real bond you have in the locker room, especially with football. It’s a special bond. Regardless of someone’s sexuality, that really should have no bearing or effect. At the end of the day you’re a team. That’s the important thing."
Rookies would welcome gay teammates
While they haven’t experienced the struggles of an NFL season and the relationships it forges, the rookies we talked to all said they were bringing open arms for gay teammates to their professional careers.
Indianapolis Colts tight end Coby Fleener hasn’t thought much about gay issues. Though having attended Stanford, a short drive down the 101 freeway from San Francisco, he has no issue with the idea of a gay man on his team.
"As long as they competed on the field and gave it their all in practice, that’s all I care about," Fleener said. "It’s not something that’s at the forefront of football. But especially at Stanford and in the Bay Area, it’s something you deal with on a regular basis, more so than anywhere else in the United States. So I’m very comfortable with it, whereas in other areas it might not be the norm."
Trent Richardson, one of the biggest stars in the 2012 NFL rookie class, didn’t play college football in a particularly gay-friendly corner of America. The running back won two national championships with Alabama and was the third pick in this year's NFL draft, selected by the Cleveland Browns. His fellow Alabamans passed an anti-gay-marriage law in 2006 with 81% of the vote; Homosexual sex only became legal in the state when the United States Supreme Court struck down all anti-sodomy laws in the nation.
Despite that, Richardson doesn’t care if a teammate is gay.
"I never pay attention to it," Richardson said while revealing he has gay friends. "They do what they do. I don’t have a problem with them. As long as they’re playing good football and contributing to the team, I don’t have nothing to do with that. It is what it is. I don’t have any problem with any sexuality or whatever they’ve got going on. That’s them. That’s what they want to do. That’s their life."
Every rookie we talked to reiterated the same sentiments.
San Francisco running back LaMichael James: "I don’t really care. As long as they help us win on Saturday and Sunday, what they do between them is their business."
Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin: "I wouldn’t mind at all. I would accept it and just go along with our business. It wouldn’t really affect me."
Philadelphia Eagles back-up quarterback Nick Foles: "Their personal preference is who they are as a person. It’s not going to affect anything. They’re still who they are. I’m going to treat them the same way."
Buffalo Bills wide receiver T.J. Graham: "You can’t discriminate. It’s just like black, white, same thing. You wouldn’t discriminate against my race, just like I wouldn’t discriminate against your sexuality."
Every player we spoke to said he has a family member, friend or acquaintance who is gay. While that relationship may have strengthened their acceptance of gay people, many of them said their attitudes about gays developed before they had a personal connection.
Former Green Bay Packer Ahman Green revealed publicly for the first time that he has a gay brother and a lesbian sister (for the full story, click here). And he couldn’t be more gay-friendly.
"The gay community is just like everybody else, but they’re treated differently," Green said. "It’s a double standard. If a guy was, 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."
Kearse previously lived in South Florida for several months with his gay male cousin, with whom he is close. It’s for his cousin that Kearse welcomes an increasing tolerance of gay people.
"It’s just becoming more acceptable, which is a good thing, so they can come out and not feel secluded or isolated," Kearse said.
Graham, who went to high school and college in Raleigh, N.C., has met a bevy gay people in his life. He comes from a large family that includes some gay cousins.
"I figure with a large team that there’s got to be someone in there who’s gay, and that’s fine," Graham said. "I’ve had a couple friends in high school too. And I met a couple athletes in college, they’re actually female, and they were the coolest people I’ve met."
While everyone we spoke with had some personal connection to the LGBT community, only one athlete said he had a teammate who had come out of the closet. The smile of Robert Griffin III, the second pick in the 2012 NFL draft, lit up the red carpet at the NFLPA’s Saturday Night Lights event in Hollywood. Known for his colorful socks, Griffin unknowingly chose a fitting pair – colored pink and purple – for his short, unexpected interview with Outsports.
Griffin remembered a high school teammate who had come out to his team in Copperas Cove, Texas. While Griffin said he has gay friends and wouldn’t care if a player came out on his new Washington Redskins team, he remembered a sad ending to the football career of his gay former teammate.
"When he came out, he stopped playing," Griffin said. "He might have stopped playing because of the negative feedback he might have gotten from being that on the football team. So, I think that’s probably why he ended up quitting."
It was from that out player that Griffin learned a gay teammate poses no threat.
"Just because they’re gay doesn’t mean they’re hitting on you," he said.
Football as homophobic…a misperception?
While there are occasional public outbursts of homophobia from NFL players, the majority of voices we have heard in recent years reflect all of these men: They don’t care if a teammate is gay.
Yet there is still the perception that football players, in particular those in the NFL, are homophobic. According to public perception, it would be impossible for an active NFL player to come out of the closet because of the locker room tormenting or marginalization he would face. Some of the players themselves voiced that concern despite their own support.
"I think because it’s such a gladiatorial sport, when people think football they think testosterone and hitting and masculinity," Palmer said. "Whatever the reason, if there was someone who was homosexual in the locker room, that would be a very hard environment to come into because of the nature of the sport. But in my experiences, I really don’t think we would have had that problem."
While James said he would have no problem with a gay teammate, he also understands the potential unknowns that keep athletes in the closet.
"Nobody’s going to come out and say it," he said, "just because football is more of a masculine sport, you know. They’re seen as big, strong men. Nobody wants to have that hung over their head or be judged, so I guess I can understand it."
Richardson says that stereotype of football players is just that…a stereotype.
"People look at us and they think we’re just big jocks," he said. "They don’t look at us as far as us being smart. We’re not just here because we play football and have talent. We had to work to get this far."
Foles thinks people see the bigger-than-life public persona of NFL players and forget they are people with friends and family just like everyone else.
"Everybody says football is such a man’s sport, and it’s so tough," he said. "That’s probably why. But we have hearts too. We’re normal people, and we just want to treat people decently."
These players’s attitudes reflect a phenomenon we have well-documented at Outsports: The vast majority of people in sports are not homophobic…but they think everyone else is. While we’re still waiting for the first active NFL player to come out publicly, those players deep in the closet now know they have a dozen more friendly voices in their fraternity.
You can reach Cyd Zeigler at email@example.com
Also: Cyd talks about the story with Amy K. Nelson of SBNation: