Lamar Jackson tweeted a homophobic comment to a Baltimore Ravens fan, refused to delete it, then deleted it and said a claim that his comment was rooted in homophobia was “reaching” and defaming his character.

Whew! A lot to unpack there.

I can’t imagine being an NFL quarterback with over a million social-media followers and the hopes of an entire city on your shoulders. When a fan takes to Twitter to essentially tell your team to give you the boot… I’m sure it stings no matter how broad their voice.

At the same time, seeing messages like that is one of the things those millions of dollars and the public profile on national television require. It sucks, but that’s reality. You take the praise of wins with the sting of losses.

As a sports journalist — and one who’s also gay and routinely defends football officials — I know this first-hand.

Fans will fan.

Lamar Jackson’s homophobic tweet

Yet it has been Jackson’s response to that fan’s message that has gotten all of the attention.

“Boy STFU,” Jackson opined in a since-deleted tweet. “y’all be cappin too much on this app mf never smelt a football field never did shit but eat dick!!”

That last bit — “eat dick” — was an unquestionable utilization of homophobia to attack the fan. Telling another man that he’s never accomplished anything but performing oral sex on other men is inherently considered an insult because, of course, being gay and engaging in gay sex is a core root of insult for so many men, including some (but not remotely all) men in the NFL.

While this is clear and obvious, Jackson completely rejected any notion that what he said could be taken as rooted in homophobia, declaring such an assertion defamed him.

“This is Defamation of my character,” Jackson tweeted, “Because not once have I ever mentioned or disrespect anyone’s Sexuality, sexual orientation, gender, Religion or Race. Your reaching…”

Jackson defends his tweet

Jackson’s posturing and assertion that he knows better what is homophobic than gay men like Outsports’ Jim Buzinski (who has been an out gay men in the sports media for over 30 years) turned this episode from a dumb tweet into an opportunity to educate guys like Jackson and his followers.

We’ve engaged in the same exact debate over the “puto” chant for years. “Puto” is the Spanish word for male prostitute, and various fans across Central and South America — most commonly Mexico — chant it during a goal kick at soccer matches.

Many fans claim it’s just a harmless way to demean an opponent. Yet the root of the word and its use clearly utilize homophobia to send a message: Men having sex with men is an insult, so we’re going to shower you with this. Major League Soccer and FIFA have agreed.

Jackson’s use of the “eat dick” phrase is the same exact dynamic. Jackson, and many others, use the term because utilizing homophobia is a powerful insult tool in many circles. Even if they don’t consciously think through its implications, it’s still there.

Urban Dictionary calls the pejorative term “the comeback of all comebacks” specifically because it taps into homophobia. As Urban Dictionary says in the very definition: “a phrase to convey anger. most effective against extremely obtuse straight males as it implies that they are homosexual.”

I would never tell a gay friend to “eat a dick” as an insult, because he’d likely respond, “yes please.” The homophobia isn’t there, so it’s more of an offer than an insult.

Yet Jackson used the term — even if he did it subconsciously — because somewhere his mind knows that lobbing homophobia at someone is, in many “straight” circles, a powerful insult.

Let’s also put this whole episode of homophobic language in some much-needed perspective.

At Outsports we’ve seen some pretty bad homophobia come out of the mouths and laptops of various athletes. This isn’t an “I hate gay people” moment. On our “Rocker Scale” of sports homophobia, Jackson’s message and ensuing bluster would probably get 1 to 1.5 Rockers (out of five), with his dismissal of concerns after-the-fact being at least half of that score.

Fine? Suspension? Education?

Does that reach the level of fines and suspensions from the league? No. He said something in the heat of the moment and probably [meaning I believe part of what he said after the fact] didn’t consciously realize what he was doing. This wasn’t a clear-cut anti-gay slur like “fa**ot” or, when used as an invective a la Anthony Edwards, “queer.”

Jackson needs some education is my best bet, as do so many other NFL athletes. Some of these players (again, like Jackson) don’t even realize when they say something homophobic.

I’ve said for years that often language like this in sports doesn’t mean the person hates or even dislikes gay people — It’s language they’ve learned that, while rooted in homophobia, doesn’t mean “I hate gay people.”

Who does hear the homophobia in these messages? Gay athletes. Gay fans. Gay coaches. And in a football universe that has long been perceived as homophobic, this doesn’t help any of those people.

Changing culture takes elements of education and punishment. In this case, it seems education is what’s really needed.

One last point. While the initial use clearly invoked homophobia, I’ve been actually more bothered by Jackson’s response when learning that people like Buzinski consider this rooted in homophobia.

To say that’s “reaching” is deeply misplaced.

Jackson was 2 years old when Buzinski and I started Outsports. Buzinski has been out in sports longer than Jackson has been alive.

He’s heard and seen every corner of homophobia for much of his adult life.

As so many of us learned during the George Floyd protests, White people don’t get to tell Black people what is racist.

And Jackson doesn’t get to tell Buzinski, me or any other gay man what is homophobic.

I’m not remotely here to equate homophobia with racism. They are not the same, and their histories in America are not even in the same ballpark.

Still, Jackson could do a lot more good by listening, instead of reacting like a privileged straight (I assume) NFL millionaire. That’s particularly true given various people have used his defense to now hurl homophobic comments at Outsports and at me.

Thankfully I’m strong enough to take it. Hopefully Jackson will be strong enough to listen, admit his mistake, learn a bit, and help all of us move on as part of the solution to homophobic language that keeps so many gay men in the sports closet.