Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo ignited a firestorm of speculation when he told the Baltimore Sun that he knows four NFL players who are considering coming out publicly together. And soon. The problem? That's just not true.
After repeating his claim to Thomas Roberts on MSNBC this morning, Ayanbadejo appeared on CNN this evening. Anderson Cooper asked him if he knows these four players (video below). Ayanbadejo's response:
No, actually, what it is is, is there are organizations I'm in contact with, and there are individuals I'm in contact with and collectively we know of some gay players. And these players, some of them are anonymous, some of them we know who they are, but their identity is super secret and nobody wants to reveal who they are, and some of them don't want to reveal who they are, rightfully so because it's entirely up to them what they are going to do.
What we want to facilitate is getting them all together so they can lean on each other, so they can have a support group. And potentially it's possible, it's fathomable, that they could possibly do something together, break a story together.
I've got to repeat that: "Potentially it's possible, it's fathomable, that they could possibly do something together."
Let me translate: "I totally made a big mistake. I should have never said I know four NFL players talking about coming out. I don't. They're not. And I certainly should have never said it was going to happen very soon. I don't believe it's going to happen this year. I let my hope get the best of me, and I look forward to helping all gay athletes however I can."
Wade Davis was a closeted player in the NFL and NFL Europe from 2000 to 2004. He said spreading rumors like this is damaging, as it strikes fear in closeted athletes.
"I think it makes them hyper vigilant, that if there's anything out there, maybe a picture on Facebook, that someone can read as gay, you immediately get afraid," Davis told Outsports. "I'd be deathly afraid that my cover's blown or maybe I didn't do a good enough job. It would make me really afraid. In some ways, the issue not being talked about it made me feel safer because I never thought, 'Somebody might be wondering about me.'"
In a broader sense, the idea of multiple athletes being "the first" has been discussed by various members of the LGBT Sports Coalition for the last year. The pressure of being America's first openly gay male pro athlete can be alleviated if several players all come out at once. If one player doesn't want to be that single ground-breaking athlete, then a group of them doing it together spreads the attention.
A group coming out together also makes the moment about the issue and not an individual. One NFL player coming out publicly puts the spotlight on that one person. If a Bear and a Charger and a Dolphin and a Steeler all do it together at the same time, the attention is drawn to the issues at hand, not a single person.
Of course, this doesn't take into account the adoration and potential endorsement deals the first out NFL player will benefit from; But if gay athletes feel the reduced risk is worth the reduced reward, then it can be a powerful way of doing it.
What's the upshot of Ayanbadejo's claim? First, stop believing all the headlines on this issue. I never believed there was any truth to this story, much like I don't believe there's any truth to what Mike Freeman wrote last month. Just wait for the headline that someone has come out; Anything else is just a guess.
Second, this kind of speculation doesn't help anyone. As Davis pointed out, it pushes athletes deeper into the closet and makes them more scared of every move they make. No one wins in this.
Finally, in trying to find some good in this: The idea is now out there about multiple athletes coming out at once. It's a good idea, but the task is daunting. It's hard enough -- and until now it's been fruitless -- to find a single NFL player to come out publicly, let alone four. Still, if this idea makes several athletes more likely to live their truth publicly, that could be a good thing.
Still, Davis remains concerned about the implications of the rumors:
"The problem is that you have straight people speaking on the behalf of these closeted gay athletes, instead of letting the gay athletes speak for themselves."