Kwame Harris was a stand-out offensive tackle at Stanford, winning the Morris Trophy as the Pac-10′s best offensive lineman in 2002. He was a first-round pick in 2003 by the San Francisco 49ers. He was a hit-and-miss player (mostly misses, if you ask 49ers fans). He last played in the NFL for the Oakland Raiders in 2008.
Kwame Harris is also gay.
On Monday, it was revealed that he had been charged with a felony for allegedly assaulting his ex-boyfriend last August. Headlines and articles mentioned the fact that this former NFL player had a boyfriend. ESPN.com's headline strangely left out the "boyfriend" reference, saying only, "Domestic charges for Kwame Harris."
None of them talked about the fact that Harris is gay.
What made ESPN.com's headline so strange? The Associated Press article it described specifically said Harris is gay:
Defense lawyer Alin Cintean said Harris, who played for Stanford before he was drafted by the 49ers in 2003 and has gone back to school to finish his undergraduate degree, identifies as gay but "is not very public about it."
"He is a very private person. He doesn't like to talk about his personal life," he said.
Harris was, until Monday, the pre-coming-out John Amaechi of the NFL. He's the guy we'd heard rumors and stories about for years who, in all probability, was gay. Beat reporters for the 49ers had told me their suspicion was, well, a little more than suspicion. In 2007, the New York Daily News ran this blind item by gossip columnist Ben Widdicombe:
Don't Shoot The Messenger
Which current NFL player is telling pals he is seriously considering coming out of the closet while he's still on his NFC team?
That prompted this speculation by me in an email to Jim after a friend of Widdicombe told me the player was 6-foot-7 black guy in California:
My guess: Kwame Harris of the Niners. Went to Stanford. Supported Kerry. And is the only 6'7″ black guy playing for a California NFC team.
Whether that particular item was about Harris or not, the fact is that he was, and is, gay. He's just the sixth former NFL player to either come out or be outed. He joins: Dave Kopay, Jerry Smith, Roy Simmons, Esera Tuaolo and Wade Davis.
Yet people, particularly in the sports media, simply aren't talking about it. There was no front-page link on Yahoo! Sports, ESPN.com or Sports Illustrated. An athlete coming out is a rare story in itself. An athlete being outed? For felony charges of attacking his boyfriend? That's pretty rare; In fact, this is the first time that's happened (as far I as I know).
The sports media likes it this way, stories like this buried on page five. We hear over and over from sports fans and writers, "Who cares if somebody's gay?" And "Why should we talk about this?" While it may sound inclusive on the surface ("I don't care if a guy's gay"), there's often homophobia at play: They don't want anybody to talk about it because they don't want to talk about it themselves. And if it's deemed a non-story, then they don't have to talk about it. (Incidentally, the writers I know are super gay-friendly - like the Daily News' Mike O'Keefe, SF Gate's Kevin Lynch and the venerable Robert Lipsyte - wouldn't say, "Eh, who cares, we shouldn't be talking about this," they find opportunities to address it.)
To me, this tiptoeing around sexual orientation the media (and fans) engages in reinforces the very homophobia it comes from. By not calling a spade a spade - by not just calling Harris "gay" - we send a clear message that being gay is something to be hidden, something to whisper about. It's not.
By no means am I talking about outing athletes. Disaster strikes when athletes are outed before they're ready, and before they've had the opportunity to lay groundwork with key allies.
But when we don't call a guy like Harris gay, it hurts. Not only was he charged with assaulting his ex-boyfriend, and not only is that charge "domestic violence" because they once lived together as partners, but Harris' lawyer confirmed his client is gay.
Kwame Harris is gay. It's OK, you can say it.