An examination of tweets of all players on a 2022 NFL roster, conducted by a young gay fan for Outsports, found 2,012 instances of homophobic or otherwise problematic language on Twitter (now called X) by about 300 players, mostly from a decade or so ago, including 408 tweets that used the anti-gay slurs “fag” or “faggot.”

There were 22 players who used the “fag/faggot” slur six or more times, some as high as 25. One of them has already apologized in a statement to Outsports for using such language in past tweets.

Every one of the 32 NFL teams has at least three players identified as currently having old homophobic tweets on their X feeds.

Almost all of these tweets came in a period from roughly 2009 to 2015, when the players were mostly in their teens or in college. Virtually none of these messages have been published in the last three years, marking a potential shift in attitude, or at the very least behavior, among NFL players and prospects.

Giving old tweets current context

Los Angeles Rams tight end Tyler Higbee apologized for his tweets from 2012-13 when he was 19 and 20 and a student at Western Kentucky and used “fag” eight times in six tweets. After Outsports contacted the Rams this week for comment, he or someone involved with his X account deleted these tweets.

Higbee also explained that he has matured in the years since posting those tweets.

A since-deleted tweet from Rams tight end Tyler Higbee.

“I regret the offensive comments I made on social media in the past,” Higbee told Outsports in a statement sent by the team. “In the 10 years since I typed those words, I have matured as a professional athlete, and as a person. I have recently been named a captain by my fellow teammates and have become a father to a beautiful baby girl. I strive to be a role model in both of those responsibilities and a positive example to those who look up to and depend on me.

“Since moving to Los Angeles, I have encountered people from all walks of life and beliefs, and I have learned the value of diversity and inclusion — on and off the field. Again, those comments do not represent who I have become and I apologize to all those who were hurt by those words.”

Higbee’s apology shows that tweets from a decade or more ago might not reflect how these players feel about LGBTQ people today.

Still, all the 300 players’ tweets were still active as of this summer, and Outsports has screen-captured hundreds of them. As Outsports has researched this story and reached out to teams, players and the league this week, various athletes have either deleted their tweets or made their X profiles private.

Compiling the list took months for “Craig,” a college student. He went through the 2022 rosters of all teams starting this winter. His list does not include searches of any NFL rookies this season nor does it include players who had retired before 2022.

“I wanted to see if not only my favorite players in the league support LGBTQ people, but I also recognize that every person has a different favorite player so I wanted to cover all the bases so that other people know if their favorite player has a homophobic past or not,” Craig told Outsports. “I want this to set a precedent throughout sports that it is simply not OK to behave this way and to increase awareness about how endemic of a problem homophobia in sports is.”

A fact that bothered Craig is that, with all of the vetting of players done by NFL teams and agents, and all of the resources they have at their disposal, these 2,000 tweets were still up this summer.

Outsports has verified Craig’s identity, but he asked for anonymity out of concern of online attacks from fans of the players or teams. He conducted a similar survey on the NBA for Outsports in 2022, finding 78 problematic tweets.

This is what some of the NFL players’ old tweets said

A sample of some homophobic tweets that reflect a range of ways language has been used, and which were still active as of Sept. 18 on X, include:

The severity of the slurs is of note, as is the context. “Fag” and “faggot” have a clear history as homophobic slurs and are generally regarded as the worst slurs of all. “Homo” and calling someone “gay” can be problematic depending on the context, while “no homo” is a sign of discomfort with anything that can be construed as “gay.”

This gallery features some of the tweets that show problematic homophobic language, along with tweets that show LGBTQ support:

Kenyan Drake, running back, signed to Baltimore Ravens practice squad on Wednesday.
Jordan Poyer, defensive back, Buffalo Bills
Tyler Boyd, wide receiver, Cincinnati Bengals
Frank Clark, defensive lineman, Denver Broncos
Robert Woods, wide receiver, Houston Texans
Derrick Henry, running back, Tennessee Titans
Elijah Campbell, defensive back, Miami Dolphins
DeVante Parker, wide receiver, New England Patriots
Bradley Roby, defensive back, free agent
Demario Davis, linebacker, New Orleans Saints
Justin Hardee Sr., defensive back, New York Jets
Jason Cabinda, running back, Detroit Lions
Samaje Perine, running back, Denver Broncos
Rasul Douglas, defensive back, Green Bay Packers
Rashad Weaver, linebacker, Tennessee Titans
Tanzel Smart, defensive lineman, New York Jets
Isaiah Hodgins, wide receiver, New York Giants
Nick Vannett, tight end, Los Angeles Chargers practice squad
Joe Mixon, running back, Cincinnati Bengals
Zack Moss, running back, Indianapolis Colts
Aaron Jones, running back, Green Bay Packers
Tress Way, punter, Washington Commanders
Zaire Franklin, linebacker, Indianapolis Colts
Justin Jackson, running back, Detroit Lions (2022) now retired
Saquon Barkley, running back, New York Giants
Jaelan Phillips, linebacker, Miami Dolphins
Penny Hart, wide receiver, Atlanta Falcons
Ezekiel Elliott, running back, New England Patriots

Language considered to be homophobic does not necessarily convey an animus toward LGBTQ people. Rather, this kind of language is often learned over time through hearing it used by friends, teammates, even parents and coaches.

As we’ve heard from athletes for years — including famously Kobe Bryant — many of them don’t even think they are conveying homophobia when they use these slurs.

In fact, there was one tweet that actually made the Outsports editorial staff laugh, and it came courtesy of Washington punter Tress Way when he was a student at Oklahoma in 2011: “Sitting in class and all I can think about is crushing some mr. Goodcents turkey Tuesday. 16 inches of meat no homo.”

Mr. Goodcents is a sandwich chain store that specializes in 16-inch subs.

Chris Kluwe is a former punter with the Seattle Seahawks, Minnesota Vikings and Oakland Raiders from 2005-2013. A staunch supporter of LGBTQ rights, he settled a lawsuit with the Vikings in 2014 after he alleged anti-gay behavior on the team, and that his activism was a reason he was cut.

“When I was in the locker room, there were four or five guys who used that language. They weren’t trying to gay bash, they were just accustomed to it,” Kluwe said. “I don’t think it’s logical to think they hate gay people. In a lot of parts of our country, we’re still quite regressive. They need to be educated and given the chance to reflect and given the opportunity to change their behavior.”

Scott Frantz played football at Kansas State from 2015 to 2019. He saw an evolution in the Wildcats locker room when he came out as gay, and he has seen attitudes and behaviors shift over time.

“Two things can be true at once,” Frantz told Outsports. “People won’t use that terminology anymore because they know they might be canceled, but they also have updated with the times, and a lot of people have changed. Before, say, 2017 they didn’t even realize [some language] was so derogatory toward gay people.”

Examining old tweets still matters

Regardless of when the slurs were tweeted, Craig said the words can hurt and have real-world consequences. He heard these same slurs while being bullied when he was younger, with one of his tormentors now playing quarterback in college.

“One small comment can have a snowball effect on how people think,” Craig said. “Even if it’s 2015 and in the halls of a middle school, one comment made in passing can be overheard by someone who could be in the closet still coming to terms with their identity.

“That offhand comment can ricochet off the sides of the psyche and can negatively impact their mental health for years and even decades afterwards. I also believe that bringing to light old tweets can set an example for younger people who think it’s funny or cool to say something like that and teach them that it’s not OK and can have negative consequences.”

Frantz, now a school teacher, said he hears this language but doesn’t think it’s generally anti-gay.

“I still hear that in school,” he said. “People still use ‘gay’ and ‘faggot.’ But I haven’t heard that word used in a malicious term, in that I hate this person because of their sexuality. It’s used because it’s just another term they use. And it’s not that I’m condoning that. It was just a term people used.”

Ryan O’Callaghan, the former Patriots and Chiefs player who came out publicly after retiring, has talked about the impact of this kind of language, regardless of its intent.

“If you’re a gay kid and you hear someone you love say ‘fag,’ it makes you think that in their eyes you’re just a fag too,” O’Callaghan said previously. “That got to me a lot.”

While public, overt homophobic tweets or statements are very rare in the NFL these days — two years after Carl Nassib came out as gay — homophobic comments by players still pop up.

In November, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson told a fan critical of his performance to “eat dick.” In January, Los Angeles Chargers defensive lineman Joey Bosa used a homophobic slur against a Philadelphia Eagles fan who heckled him.

When contacted for comment about the league’s general efforts to shift player language, the NFL would not make a league official available, but issued a statement:

“The NFL is steadfast in its commitment to educating players and staff on LGBTQ+ issues, and in fostering a culture of inclusivity and respect in all league spaces. The league is currently enhancing our current training curriculum to accompany the league’s existing code of conduct. Through these comprehensive education programs and ongoing initiatives, we’re continuing our dedication to promoting an inclusive and welcoming environment for all.”

In his retirement message, Nassib said he will be working with the NFL on issues related to LGBTQ inclusion in the league.

Regarding diversity initiatives focusing on the front office, Kluwe said people in the front office have a longer effect on an NFL team than a player, whose average career lasts about three years.

“If you want a culture shift, it’s probably good to focus on the executives,” Kluwe said. “But the players are the forward-facing people in an organization.

“From my personal perspective — and this is anecdotal — I think there are people in each organization that want to move the issue forward. And there are people entrenched in the way things are being done.”

Outsports reached out to several players via their teams and more than a dozen players through their social media. Higbee was the only player to respond with a public explanation and apology.

‘It was just kind of an ignorant thing’

We have long known from anecdotes from players — both gay and straight — that homophobic language in locker rooms is most prevalent in high school, less so in college and much less so to nonexistent in the pros. It was an observation echoed by then-Houston Texans linebacker Connor Barwin in a 2012 interview with Outsports where he talked about his love for his gay brother and support for same-sex marriage. His comments are from a period when the tweets in this story were most common.

“I used to hear, and I mean generally, ‘fag’ more often, but I honestly think in the last couple of years I really don’t hear it anymore,” Barwin said. “I think when I did hear people say it before, they didn’t mean it in an offensive way — it was just kind of an ignorant thing — but I think now people understand it’s a pretty offensive word and people aren’t using it as much. It shows you the culture is changing and people’s opinions are changing and it’s happening quickly.

“I know people who would say it [a gay slur] and they honestly didn’t mean it to be offensive to gay people but they just said it growing up. But I think now people realize you sound ignorant when you say that.”

The 2021 Out In Sports study, conducted by Outsports and the University of Winchester, showed that 70% of high school and college athletes heard problematic anti-LGBTQ language from teammates on a weekly basis.

NFPLA player reps among those who have shared anti-gay tweets

Some team representatives from the NFLPA are among those who shared and kept homophobic language on their X feeds, including:

“What we have seen in recent years is a positive shift in attitudes and acceptance,” an NFLPA spokesperson told Outsports. “Most of that shift can be attributed to honest and candid dialogue, which often makes a more lasting impact than any structured programming.”

There were some positives in Craig’s search of players’ feeds, including those who tweeted out support for LGBTQ people.

To further the point, one of the players who tweeted “fag” multiple times in 2013 and 2014 — 49ers defensive lineman Clelin Ferrell — in 2020 shared his support for then-Raiders teammate Nassib coming out publicly as gay, saying: “That’s my brother. We got his back 100%. This year will be special.”

Kluwe — the fierce LGBTQ advocate when he was in the NFL — said that even he used similar anti-gay language growing up in the 1990s “because I didn’t know any better.”

As for players who tweeted homophobic sentiments, Kluwe added, “No one is perfect. The question is, do you learn from those mistakes? And if you learn from it, that’s all we can expect from anyone.”