Over the last six months I've had various conversations with folks at the NFL Players Association. I've found them to be incredibly thoughtful on LGBT issues and very open to making change. I wrote previously about George Atallah, who said NFL locker rooms would "embrace" a gay teammate, and he connected me with NFLPA president Domonique Foxworth.
Foxworth had written a column on the subject around the time of the Super Bowl, but for legitimate editorial reasons, he sat on it. When my interview request came through, he decided the column had sat in his computer waiting long enough, and he had it published on the Huffington Post earlier this week.
I caught up with Foxworth this week and talked with him about gay issues in the NFL. What he said was fantastic, talking openly about having gay teammates in college and the NFL, and the interest various players have to sign onto a Supreme Court brief supporting same-sex marriage.
Zeigler: Why did you write that column for the Huffington Post?
Domonique Foxworth: I felt like it needed to be written. When I have something that I feel needs to be said, I say it. I’ve always felt that being an athlete, you get a certain platform and you should use that platform for the right causes. I’ve always admired John Carlos and Bill Russell and Jesse Owens. These guys work their whole life to get there and they decided to sacrifice their pride and joy for advancement of a social issue. But I feel this fight is one I should step into. It’s an obvious injustice, not just how gays are treated in sport but how they’re treated in the world. It’s hard to argue that it’s just.
Zeigler: Is this an issue you all at the NFLPA ever discuss? What do those discussions look like?
Foxworth: I’ve had conversations with Marc, DeMaurice Smith’s assistant. He’s been openly gay since he was 16. We’ve had conversations about how gays are treated in sports. It’s not really an issue in our circles. We don’t remember it’s an issue until it becomes public. It’s just a culture that needs to be changed.
Zeigler: What is the NFLPA doing to make sure an NFL player coming out of the closet would be warmly welcomed?
Foxworth: I’m not sure I have the answer to change it. The model I try to follow is you put everything out in the open and talk about it. It’s at a glacial pace, but slowly it moves everything closer and closer to acceptance. We’re closer than we were five years ago, even a year ago. As uncomfortable as it is when people make homophobic comments, I do think it’s like the civil rights movement and you need to be confronted with the ugliness. And we need to confront them.
Zeigler: Are there any specific things you’re doing to change it?
Foxworth: I can’t say there’s a specific initiative, other than writing about it and talking about it. I know there’s been some discussion about signing onto the Prop 8 case in the Supreme Court or allowing players to sign onto the case in support of gay issues. It’s a good question, and it’s challenging me to think about it.
Zeigler: Roger Goodell has rejected several requests to speak on this issue. I’ve been told gay athletes is "a team issue." Is it just a team issue, or is it an NFL issue?
Foxworth: I think it’s bigger than both. My focus as president is on the well-being of the players in the NFL. It’s a bigger issue, and the NFL is bigger than just football. It’s naïve to say the things we do don’t reach beyond the sport. Overall it’s much bigger than a team issue.
I’ve said this about the League many times: Their priorities, and I say this on health and safety issues, and I think this fits into mental health, they’re interested in turning a profit. And the League and the teams are interested in doing things that produce higher revenues. When you look at it through that prism, you understand why the league is reluctant to do step out on this issue. If they don’t do it now, they may do it years from now when it’s safer and the coast is clear. I don’t think they disagree [with ending homophobia in sport]. They just feel like it could affect the bottom line.
Zeigler: Reports from Colorado tight end Nick Casa say that teams were asking players about their sexual orientation at the Combine? Is that right? And is that even legal, given the inclusion of sexual orientation protection in the CBA?
Foxworth: No and no. It’s not right and it’s not legal, based on how I understand the CBA. Conversations have been had about these sorts of things. It’s our responsibility. Jason [Whitlock, in his colum] was saying it’s the league’s responsibility to protect the players, but it’s our responsibility to protect the players.
Zeigler: Every male athlete who has come out publicly or to his team that I know of, no matter what sport, no matter where in the world, has had an overwhelmingly positive experience. Active college football players. NFL players who have come out after retirement. Every one of them says they were met with open arms from teammates. Yet when I ask the talking heads and current straight players if someone can come out and be embraced in the NFL, even when I ask guys who say they have no problem with a gay teammate, they say no, everyone else will hate him. What’s the disconnect?
Foxworth: People have a hard time. That disconnect is probably a bit of a microcosm for how gays in the locker room are understood. People don’t understand homosexuality, it’s so different from what they’re used to. It’s similar to how people view athletes. People view athletes as big dumb Neanderthals, and that’s an easy narrative to write about. It’s better to write about than saying we have a group of accepting athletes. And I think that’s much closer to the truth.
I know in my college team, we had people we suspected of being gay. And on NFL teams I’ve been on also. But no one was ostracized. In the locker room, it’s the least-PC place in the world. I’ve had conversations with white offensive lineman about the word nigger. And it’s good. I think our locker room is a place where everything is discussed, everything is said. And it’s possible that guys use terminology that is unacceptable to the general society. The very openness of speech in the locker room gives the impression of intolerance. You get jokes about everything. It’s like a brotherhood. You can talk bad about your brother and it’s all good."
Zeigler: Do you have gay friends or family members?
Foxworth: Quite a few. I wrote about a number of them in the piece, and I took it out. I mentioned my friend Patrick, who works for the pharmaceutical company. Mark, whom I mentioned earlier. I thought it was important to talk about how gays are tough. I talk about Mark who grew up in a less-tolerant time, and he grew up since he was 16 as a black man. And everything, your church, your family, your friends, is telling you who you are is wrong. We think it’s tough because you push through a three hour workout? Every second of Mark’s life he had to deal with this. To me, that’s extremely commendable and sad.
I remember a time a few years ago, my cousin on my wife’s side, their family is very Catholic. They tried to ignore it. It’s just very recently where everyone in the family is like, OK, you’re gay and you’re OK. He just didn’t talk about it before. Me being the pot-stirrer I am, I asked her family members about it. And they were in denial. I wanted to write about those things because it’s an example of real courage and bravery that we’re in favor of in sports."
After the interview, we had a fantastic off-the-record conversation about these issues. In Foxworth the NFLPA has a deeply thoughtful president who emphasizes inclusion, health and well-being. I can't wait to see what he does next.