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The Sportsman of the Day
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Browns’ linebacker Scott Fujita says the NFL is ready.
“I would argue that the overwhelming majority (of NFL players) would be fine with having a teammate who was gay,” Fujita said last week.
Colorado University tight end Nick Kasa, a draft prospect, may not be so sure.
“Do you have a girlfriend? Are you married? Do you like girls?” Kasa says he was asked by at least one team at the NFL scouting combine last week. “You know it was just kind of weird.”
He’s right. It’s kind of weird.
Fujita says having an openly gay player in the locker room, a place where privacy doesn’t permit itself, with as many as 53 men showering and changing clothes at the same time, “would not be an issue.”
Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio says it might be an issue.
“Teams want to know whether Manti Te’o is gay,” Florio said in a radio interview. “They just want to know. They want to know because in an NFL locker room, it’s a different world.”
So which is it? Who’s right? Is the NFL ready?
Never before has the subject of homosexuality in the most masculine of American sports been so openly discussed. From the public questioning of Teo’s sexuality following the revelation that he had been in an online relationship with a man who posed as a woman, to the hard-core homophobic rant delivered by San Francisco’s Chris Culliver during Super Bowl week, to statements of support by the likes of Fujita and others, the issue of sexual orientation is suddenly front and center on the NFL stage.
Sure, there have been a few former players who have opened up and admitted their orientation, but they did so from the comfort zone of retirement. To this day, no NFL player has publicly declared himself to be gay while still active in the league.
Esera Tuaolo played defensive tackle in the league for five teams over nine seasons, and in 2002 he became just the third former NFL player to come out publicly, following David Kopay and Roy Simmons.
“Jokes, lots of jokes,” Tuaolo responded when asked what it was like to be a gay man hiding among a locker room full of straight men in the NFL. “It was very difficult for me,” he told HBO in October, “because I would hear those things and I would have to bite my lip.”
So why didn’t he come out during his playing days, when he could have addressed the issue head on?
“I wish I had,” he says in his new book. “But it’s hard to imagine any NFL player coming out while guys like (former Packer) Sterling Sharpe are saying his teammates would take out a gay man in practice.”
Sharpe retired in 1994, and Tuaolo in 1999. Has the league evolved in the past decade and a-half? Have attitudes changed?
Fujita insists they have. A quick glance at Culliver’s comments would suggest otherwise.
“I don’t do the gay guys man,” the 49er cornerback said on Super Bowl media day. “I don’t do that. No, we don’t got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do.”
Just to confirm there was no misunderstanding on his position, Culliver added, “Can’t be with that sweet stuff. Nah ... can’t be ... in the locker room man. Nah.”
But perhaps Culliver’s feelings don’t represent the rank and file of NFL players. As a cornerback on the field, he’s out on an island. Perhaps he’s in a similar place, all by himself, off it.
We don’t have to travel all the way back to San Francisco to find out. We can stay in Berea.
This past November, Browns’ linebacker Tank Carder blocked a follower’s Twitter account, declaring the user a “f****t” in the process. Immediately condemned for the gay slur, Carder defended his choice of words by tweeting, “I don’t agree with being gay or lesbian at all, but saying f****t doesn’t make me a homophobe. It’s just a word.”
Oh, to be a fly on the wall in the linebacker meeting room when Fujita and Carder came face-to-face following that exchange.
Both Culliver and Carder eventually apologized for their comments, but apologies for public statements do not erase deeply held beliefs and feelings. And for many NFL players, the discomfort they may feel, if not the outright hatred they harbor, while dressing alongside gay teammates will never disappear, no matter how many public acts of atonement they may offer.
The presence of advocates like Fujita may indeed make locker rooms more inviting for a gay player to roll the dice and come out while still active, but the odds are still likely to be stacked squarely against him. NFL locker rooms remain, as Tuaolo agreed, the most macho places on earth.
The fact that NFL scouts and executives are asking leading questions during routine combine interviews is pretty good evidence — that they want them to stay that way.