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NFL is ready for an openly gay player — it just doesn’t know it

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A longtime Bengals front office executive says the timing is right.

Jack Brennan worked for the Bengals for 23 years.
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In many NFL front offices, the very prospect of it could cause chills and ashen faces.

And I can imagine the coaching staff being thoroughly gloomy, asking why they, of all staffs, must be shackled with the Mother of Distractions.

But they’d all get over it. Having an openly gay player, I mean. And so would the “conservative” side of their fan base, whose possible reaction would be the main cause of those front-office chills.

As for the players? They’d do just fine, with proper leadership from their bosses.

I present these views after daily contact for 32 years with the Cincinnati Bengals, the teams they played and NFL office personnel. I did nine seasons as Bengals beat reporter for Cincinnati newspapers and 23 more inside the walls as Bengals public relations director. And I’m tellin’ ya, a second time, when it happens, they’ll all get over it.

Everybody got over it in the military, didn’t they? Of course. Like totally. The military brass is still not beholden to politics or religion, thankfully, and their fact-based analyses give a thumbs-up to having “out” people at all levels from private to four-star. Their clear statements have kept inclusion on course, including right now, as they help scuttle the president’s attempted tweet-ban of transgender soldiers.

And we’ve gotten over it at the county courthouse, right? Though the fringe makes noise occasionally against marriage equality, Mr. and Mrs. Middle American have found no problems with the institution in their daily lives and have moved on. They contribute to the rising majority in favor of same-sex unions (at two-thirds in in recent polling), and more importantly for the long term, their kids already consider it some crazy old-fashioned stuff that equality was once denied.

Big business? Big business got over it so long ago that if the repressive set carried their prejudice into the marketplace, they’d find nowhere personally acceptable to shop or be employed. To keep from going hungry, they’d have to buy a hell of a lot of cake from that Colorado baker.

So why wouldn’t the NFL be ready, too? NFL owners admire the nation’s military leaders, don’t they? Wouldn’t they take some direction from that? And whatever initial willies the owners, coaches and some players might have, the league office would provide an excellent leadership bridge to get things rolling in the right direction. The NFL office — “Park Ave.” as insiders call it — has long been surprisingly progressive on social issues, and current Commissioner Roger Goodell is a good steward of those values.

In picking out owners and coaches as the ones who’ll need some help with this, I’m not trying to call them out as particularly prejudiced. But they are all about the win column in an almost insanely competitive enterprise, and it’s in their genes to fear developments outside the football norm.

The owners are old, rich and conservative, and coaches of all walks (the NBA’s Gregg Popovich excepted) have always seemed to consider it a code to never be outspoken on issues not directly related to their sports. And neither group is quite ready to separate from the 100-year-old mentality that the best football locker rooms — the winning ones — are just too razor-straight and rough for a gay guy.

Dogma, by definition, is hard for any of us to erase.

Also in defense of owners and coaches, it’s not like they’ve had a lot of chances to make this work. They’ve had exactly one openly gay player apply —linebacker/defensive end Michael Sam in 2014 — and Sam was by many accounts a marginal prospect.

It’s hard to convincingly argue — though some have tried — that Sam didn’t get a fair shot in being 1) drafted by the St. Louis Rams, 2) used in all four preseason games and 3) employed briefly on the Dallas practice squad after being released by the Rams. He later failed to find success even in the low-octane Canadian League.

And though I suspect owners and coaches mostly remain relieved that Sam’s case remains isolated — who needs a new “issue,” right? — a new and more significant case would be in their rear-view mirrors sooner than they think. By “more significant,” I mean a Pro Bowl player still in his prime coming out, or some can’t-miss collegians doing the same.

No, the real problem seems to be on the supply side, below the NFL level. From the peewees to the preps to the colleges, football and society are obviously just not producing top players who are gay and ready to be out.

Football “traditionalists” might proudly assert that the sport is indeed too rough for gays, and though I wouldn’t agree with that, I would concur there seem many reasons why gay kids with multiple athletic talents might seek alternatives to football.

Though the other major male team sports haven’t done any better than football — NBA veteran Jason Collins remains the only openly gay athlete to play in a regular season game — doesn’t it still seem that football is a tougher nut to crack than basketball, baseball or hockey? And football still has the biggest national stage, hence our focus here on the NFL.

But football could still be the first to get gay candidates whose talent cannot be ignored, and back to the other players for a moment, they won’t be a collective problem. I always said that working for an NFL team was sort of like being in an army, and in the army, the soldiers accept what they’re told to accept. Whatever a player’s personal views on inclusion, he’s not going to risk harming his career for it.

And also In my experience, football teams already handle it internally when players are strongly rumored to be gay.

Three players came across the radar at different times of my Bengals career as the subject of significant scuttlebutt about being gay. In one case, I know from personal discussions that top club management was very aware.

I never personally discussed these cases with any players, but it’s inconceivable to me this never reached the roster as a whole. And I was pleasantly surprised to observe that each of the allegedly closeted trio seemed fully accepted at all times in the traditional solidarity of teammates.

When one of them had off-field legal issues, unrelated to sexual identity, leading to some controversial reporting by a local TV station, several players reacted with near-rage at station personnel and demanded to me that the station be kicked out of the locker room.

In those 23 years, I never saw a more angry reaction to media in defense of a teammate.

Also, I’d like to note that I never detected even a hint that management would have considered purging a player for whispers about his sexuality. Two of the three players were significantly good performers, and the third was a serviceable roster guy. Any management fears of possible “distractions” were overridden by the desire to see these players earn their salaries in support of wins.

And in the end, in these cases, there never was a notable distraction. The media (to its credit) declined to pursue rumors that were nobody’s business, the players kept playing, and when they left the team, each case was for seemingly totally normal football reasons. And to this day I personally have no clue of any of the trio’s true orientation. Scuttlebutt isn’t always true.

Even though Sam didn’t last, you’d like to think his four months with the Rams (from the draft through preseason) would have busted open the door for others. Sam showed, as did Collins in the NBA, that a gay player in the locker room wouldn’t destroy the chemistry.

“Really, it was just business as usual,” recalls Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the primary Rams beat writer during Sam’s time. “After a few days, he seemed like just another one of the players.”

But playing in preseason, even when Sam got three sacks, didn’t crack open the door.

I asked Thomas for his take on Rams head coach Jeff Fisher’s role in the dynamic. Fisher was a veteran coach with a ton of big wins on his resume, and he had relatively free hand from ownership in personnel decisions.

“He was a guy with a lot of confidence in himself,” Thomas said. “He knew how to handle a team, he felt Sam had talent worth looking at, and I’m sure he felt he could handle that situation. He was known as a good ‘players’ coach,’ and he was very experienced in the fact that football players come from different walks of life, and that you have to be able to unite different types of people to be successful.”

Did he perceive Fisher as personally more socially progressive than most head coaches?

“No,” Thomas replied. “To me he fit right in the mode of coaches. Pretty conservative.”

Thanks for reaching the end of this long epistle, and now it needs a bottom line. How about this:

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, the football pipeline will send a top openly gay prospect to the NFL. And if he fails to succeed, it won’t be because he’s gay, or because anybody outlandishly persecuted him for it. And he doesn’t succeed, the next gay guy will. And when one really has succeeded — more than Michael Sam — the dam will start to break, and football and all the rest of us will be much better for it.

Jack Brennan was public relations director for the Cincinnati Bengals for 23 seasons (1994-2016) before retiring last spring. A former journalist, he was Bengals beat reporter for the Cincinnati Post from 1984-89 and for the Cincinnati Enquirer from 1991-93. In 1990 he took a one-year break from football, as the Enquirer writer covering the Cincinnati Reds, who went on to sweep favored Oakland in the World Series. He can be reached at brennanj61@gmail.com.