Drew Magary of Deadspin wonders if Kerry Rhodes is being banned by the NFL because of rumors that he's gay. "If Rhodes' sexuality is a nonissue for teams, then what else is wrong with him? What other explanation is there?" he wrote Thursday. Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk echoed Margary and added, "It's impossible to rule out the notion that teams are looking elsewhere to avoid the potential distractions that would arise from Rhodes either being outed or coming out, despite his denials."
While it's not the first time we've heard this speculation, Deadspin and Pro Football Talk are two of the most-read sports sites, so them raising the issue has given the Rhodes situation a prominence that can't be ignore. There's only one problem - there's no evidence that Rhodes is being blackballed.
When we asked NFL spokesman Greg Aiello if the "League in any way tried to prevent Rhodes from landing on a team this season," he said, "Of course not!!" The exclamation points were his.
This spring and summer, several gossip websites published articles claiming Rhodes, who played safety for eight years for two teams, is gay. The articles included photos and one video of Rhodes with Russell "Hollywood" Simpson, who said he was Rhodes' boyfriend. Rhodes issued a statement to TMZ in April denying that he was gay, which caused Simpson to reveal more details of what he said was their relationship. That did not stop the rumors, but Rhodes' denial was the only mention (until now) of the story on Outsports. We have always been against outing and did not feel comfortable writing about some new photo that surfaced. Rhodes says he's not gay and our policy is to take him at his word.
But NFL teams looking for a free agent safety have to be aware of the rumors (do a web search for "Kerry Rhodes" and the gay stories are front and center). It would be naïve to think that these have played no role in Rhodes being unemployed, but it's a leap to say they have played the deciding role.
All this speculation does is push athletes deeper in the closet.
If you're hooked on the "gay" reasoning for Rhodes' unempoyment, one more possible explanation is that Rhodes' struggle to find a job is not because he's gay, but in fact because he's closeted. Being closeted and having to publicly defend yourself from suggestions you are gay can be a huge distraction for a player and a team (Florio does acknowledge this). It's made especially distracting when there are concerns that more "evidence" is forthcoming.
While we doubt any gay NFL player will come out during the season, we believe that an openly gay player would be embraced by his team. This player would not be fearful of being outed, so the "distractions" argument would hold no water. Logically, any openly gay player is someone who would know his team would be accepting, otherwise they would stay closeted. If done in the off-season, coming out could get a ton of attention at a time when no games are being played and minimize the distractions during the season (witness: Jason Collins).
For some reason, gay athletes and their vocal straight allies get labeled by the media "problematic" for NFL teams in a way that other problem players are not. The theory paints the picture of some cabal in the NFL out to "blackball" anyone who dares be friendly to the gays. The finger has been pointed to punter Chris Kluwe, who is currently out of football. Yet when the Vikings cut Kluwe, the Raiders quickly signed him. He didn't make the final roster, but neither did a bunch of guys in training camp. There is zero evidence Kluwe has been blackballed, yet Magary uses him as another example to buttress his argument about Rhodes.
Scott Fujita, the linebacker who retired before the season, was the first big, vocal straight ally in the NFL. Despite appearing all over the media advocating for LGBT equality and attending high-profile fundraisers for GLAAD, Fujita was able to find a new gig with the Browns after leaving the Saints in 2010; he prospered there for three seasons.
Are there legitimate football reasons for Rhodes not having a job? Reviews of Rhodes' ability are mixed. Pro Football Focus rated Rhodes the fourth-best safety in 2012, and Sports Illustrated noted in August: "How is Rhodes still a free agent? Sure, he's turning 32 in August and Rex Ryan previously ripped the former Jets' attitude. But Rhodes still played his tail off in 2012." On the other hand, NFL.com did not rank him among the top free agents (he was named "best of the rest"). Maybe he simply does not fit any one team's needs right now.
He's also not the only veteran player to be without a job. One-time star running backs Willis McGahee (a Pro Bowler in 2011) and Michael Turner are unemployed, as is linebacker Takeo Spikes, to name three. Where are the speculative articles about them being unemployed for their personal lives?
What do all of these guys have in common? They're all - like Rhodes - over 30 years old. If the NFL is prejudiced against anything, it's age. When we asked New England Patriots spokesperson Stacey James if the Patriots had secretly banned Rhodes because of gay rumors, his one-word answer spoke volumes:
Look at what the Patriots are building in their secondary:
SS: Steve Gregory, age 30; Duron Harmon, age 22
FS: Devin McCourty, age 26; Adrian Wilson, age 33; Nate Ebner, age 24; Marquice Cole, age 29; Kyle Arrington, age 27; Logan Ryan, age 22
CB: Aqib Talib, age 27; Alfonzo Dennard, age 24
With the exception of Wilson (who was Rhodes' teammate in Arizona last season), every player is 30 or younger.
NFL teams have an obsession with youth that makes a lot of sense. Younger players can be molded more easily, cost less money, have a bigger up-side and can have a longer career if their development pays off.
Kerry Rhodes' problem isn't that he may be gay, the more likely problem is that he's 31 (and not a superstar).
Rhodes might also be unemployed because of money. Since we first posted this article, Mike Jurecki of 910-AM in Phoenix says that the Arizona Cardinals -- Rhodes' last team -- offered Rhodes a one-year, $3 million guaranteed contract. But Jurecki says that Rhodes wanted to “roll the dice” in free agency. If Rhodes is signed now, he would be guaranteed a minimum salary of $840,000.
The NFL season is one of attrition. Players get injured every week, even in practice, and odds are that some safeties will be among them. In 2010, the Colts were so thin at safety that they signed a guy in December who had been cut three times that season. We may become more suspicious if Rhodes goes the whole season without getting a tryout from a safety-hungry team.
But jumping to far-reaching conclusions, labeling Rhodes' failure to land a job as homophobia, does a disservice and only reinforces the idea that gay men in sports should stay in the closet.