I came to the NFL annual meeting looking to test an often-posited theory by some activists and media members. As more and more young gay athletes have come out of the closet, and as many young straight athletes have expressed their support for gay players, the finger of homophobic blame in sports has been pointed by some squarely at "the older generation."
The problem in football for gay players rests with the greying coaches, general managers and owners who just don't "get it" - or so says the theory. They're from a backward time when you didn't even let players drink water, for Chrissake - How could they possibly welcome a gay athlete?
What I found this week in Orlando was something very different (and not surprising to those who have spent time talking with coaches and other NFL execs). Former NFL player and You Can Play executive director Wade Davis was given the opportunity to speak to all of these men and women of "the older generation." He spoke to them about the truths and myths of gay athletes. From all accounts, he scored big because he achieved the most important element in the march to gay equality in sports: He connected.
"What I liked about his presentation was he spoke directly to everybody in that room," New York Giants owner Steve Tisch, age 65, said after the presentation. "He didn't sugarcoat anything, I don't think anybody was mislead about anything. He said this is real, it's happening now. I thought it was a tremendously direct, strong, honest presentation."
Davis connected with themes. He talked about family - How the NFL is a family and how we all have gay family members. After Davis' presentation I heard that theme echoed over and over from "the older generation."
Wade Davis helps NFL shift on gay issues
Gay former NFL player Wade Davis addressed coaches and general managers Monday, will speak with owners on Tuesday. Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said the presentation was "fantastic."
"I thought it was really an outstanding moment," said Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. At age 55, he's the second-longest tenured head coach in the NFL. "I thought some of the things he said were incredible, the fact that we all have dealt with a gay family member. It may have been a surprise to us, it may have been your cousin, whoever it was, we've all dealt with that. And for me, that was the best statement that was made, we're all dealing with this, so let's move forward."
Denver Broncos head coach John Fox, age 59, echoed the "family" theme, calling Davis' presentation "the most incredible" he's seen in all his years with the NFL.
"It is a brotherhood, it is a family," Fox said. "You need diversification in everything, even sexual orientation. It has to be in the conversation now."
Even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, age 55, mentioned "family" when asked about Davis' presentation during his closing remarks at the annual meeting.
"I found his message to be very important for all of us to hear," Goodell said. "He's a professional, he's part of the family like we all are in the NFL, and he just wants to make sure we provide that kind of workplace for people who know and play football and be comfortable playing football."
Davis also made a key, nuanced distinction that played powerfully with the group: "Gay football players" are actually "football players who are gay." The football comes first for them. It seems like a simple concept, but it's one easily clouded by the coverage the media gives gay athletes. Michael Sam is a household name now because he came out as gay, not because he led the SEC in sacks last season. It's easy to conflate that disproportionate media coverage with Sam's personal priorities.
"Wade did a great job of explaining to everybody what his goals were as a player and moving forward where guys like himself come out and express how they are and what kind of person they are," said San Diego Chargers head coach Mike McCoy, age 41. "The big thing is, he wanted to be one of the 53 guys. He wanted a role in the NFL. He wanted to be an NFL player."
Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht felt Michael Sam's actions in the last six weeks have reflected that. Sam came out publicly all on one day, then refused every interview since the day his story was released and focused on football.
"I really appreciate that about him," Licht, age 43, said of Sam. "He had to get it out at some point, he did it at the right time. Now he can focus on getting better. The pressure is off of him now."
But the big buzzword all week was "respect." With the Wells report indicting the environment in the Miami Dolphins locker room, the NFL and every front office are now examining the culture on their teams. Gone are the days when slurs and epithets went unchecked. The entire league's management understands - from locker room antics to interactions on the field - that highlighting respect for one another, including different sexual orientations, is paramount.
"What's happened with all this bullying and harassment, it's opened everybody's eyes," said Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, age 73. "It's something nobody was thinking about - Whatever took place in the locker room took place and there were no issues. But I think this has really opened everybody's eyes. No matter race or [sexual orientation], those types of slurs and the respect people will have, I think it's important. And it's something the NFL wants to make sure, that all people are treated with respect no matter where it is. And that's very important. And I think everybody feels that way."
Ross said he's working with NYU's Sports and Society program to address the bullying and harassment in the Dolphins locker room.
Reactions of other key NFL people to Davis' presentation:
Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, age 56: "We've worked with all kinds of people. As coaches we're all kinds of people. We're a microcosm of life. It's all the same issues, challenges, joys, relationships, all those things."
New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, age 50: "I think every one of us who sat in there found it to be one of the most meaningful, productive portions of this week. ... Certainly as an organization and a locker room, we look at diversity to include a gay football player. I know how our locker room is, and it's something we spend time on with regards to respect of others and the mission statement being winning. And if those things are pointed in the right direction, the other stuff is not that important really."
Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, age 57: " I do think we're football coaches, we don't really care, we get the best players out here and we go to work. One of the interesting things [Wade] talked about was how the players don't really care either. So that's good."
Tennessee Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt, age 52: "We like good football players. I don't care much about anything else. If they're a good teammate and a good football player, that's all that really matters."
I wrote about other key reactions earlier this week.
Some will dismiss the reactions as these men just saying what's politically correct, but that's not right. I was there. I watched their body language. Many of these men were energized by the conversations and the prospects of talking about it with their teams. Some were lukewarm at worst - I'll address that in another column.
As with every issue, there's certainly no true unanimity. MMQB's Robert Klemko reported that one AFC general manager called Davis' two presentations "overkill" (though the only overkill I've seen on this issue is the anonymous sources dampening conversations about gay athletes).
I talked to almost two dozen owners, general managers and coaches about these issues. Only one seemed by my estimation to struggle with answering my questions. And you know what? That's OK. We cannot expect anyone to sit through a couple brief presentations and suddenly be ready to march in a pride parade (not that we're asking that, though a joke by Davis about Jerry Jones on a pride float was met with hearty laughs).
Education is a process. We don't know where people have come through on their journey. Maybe they were teased as kids and built up a barrier on the subject. Maybe they haven't known many gay people. Whatever the reason, they don't know how to answer questions and haven't given the issue much thought.
Part of the overwhelmingly positive reaction was, no doubt, due to the lack of familiarity with the issues on the part of many in the audience. Davis knew while planning his presentation that many of the people had preconceived notions of gay football players as being weak or out for attention for their sexual orientation. Because he didn't sugarcoat anything, addressing those issues directly, he allayed fears and won over the audience. It was a huge first step.
That is exactly what this was: A first step. The "older generation" of the NFL now understands the need to address homophobia and issues of gay athletes head-on. Translating the good feeling coming out of the meeting into conversations with teams, coaching staffs and front offices will be step No. 2.