Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman, a veteran National Football League reporter, reported Wednesday that over the summer, at least one NFL player was close to coming out as gay. The player, according to Freeman’s report, was a free agent, but he was negotiating a contract with a team that knew he was preparing to come out. Another gay player was close to signing at the same time. The second player’s team also knew he was gay and didn’t care. When it asked current players, they said it would be no problem. That deal fell apart too, when the player, who Freeman describes as a “high-profile defensive back,” requested too much money.
More interesting, though, is why the deal with the first player never happened. All of this was happening around the time that the NBA’s Jason Collins came out as gay in April, a major media story in a sports world still looking for its first openly gay player in one of the four major American sports leagues. It turned into a media storm, and that, according to Freeman, scared the NFL team away:
The first player, the one who expected to sign in June, heard in mid-to-late May from the interested team that it would no longer be signing him, officials from other teams told Bleacher Report. The player was told the reason why was fear of intense media coverage.
That may seem an understandable fear, but I think it’s misguided. The coming out of an NFL player will be a major media story, to be sure, but I think any team fearful of signing a gay player simply because of the media spectacle it would create is overstating what will occur.
Consider this: the coming out of professional soccer player Robbie Rogers was also a major media story, and his anticipated return to the sport caused much anxiety in the sports world. Rogers, who retired upon coming out, eventually signed with Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy. When he returned to play for the first time on May 27 in front of a packed crowd in LA, his appearance led ESPN’s SportsCenter. It made headlines in major newspapers across the country. Sports blogs, including this one, trumpeted the achievement.
And then it was done.
How much have we heard about Rogers and his sexuality since? His teammates, his league, and his fans were accepting. When Rogers notched his lone assist of the season, there were no headlines about him being the first openly gay player to create a goal in MLS history. His sexuality was a story up until the minute he stepped on the field, when the whole world realized that Robbie Rogers, gay or straight, was still a soccer player.
The NFL, of course, isn’t the MLS. It receives far more attention, to say the least, and meta- and non-stories churn in the media’s NFL echo chamber for days. It would unquestionably be a bigger deal for an NFL (or NBA or MLB) player to come out than it was for a soccer player, as Collins’ coming out proved. But the basic media dynamic, while grander, is still largely the same. It will be a huge media story when a gay player comes out, when he signs his first contract, when he goes to his first training camp. The anticipation will build until he plays his first game, at which point media outlets across the country and around the world will highlight the breaking of a barrier. The headline — So-And-So Becomes First Openly Gay Man In The NFL — will be huge. But then, what will we write? First Openly Gay Man Scores Touchdown? First Openly Gay Man Rushes For 100 Yards? First Openly Gay Man Says Team Needs To Improve To Win Super Bowl? Those stories aren’t interesting, and so that type of coverage isn’t sustainable.
Rather, what NFL teams fear is the potential negative coverage that could come with it. The media will write stories when players talk trash about gay players, when they say they aren’t ready, when they make homophobic comments. The media will write stories if fans treat the player poorly. If the player isn’t performing up to his past standards, perhaps there will be questions about whether the player was simply an affirmative action hire, a publicity stunt to sell tickets. An idiot on talk radio will make those claims or say the league isn’t ready or blame a team’s loss on the distraction of having a gay player around. They fear what will happen if a gay player gets hazed or bullied. With an openly gay player, those stories will only seem worse, the teams surmise. And if a team decides to cut a player who is gay, the media will question whether it was a legit roster decision or motivated by discrimination.
But guess what? Most of that is already happening. Players have already made homophobic comments. The media and fans have already questioned whether roster decisions involving vocal gay allies like Brendan Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe were motivated by discrimination and homophobia. Talk radio hosts are already idiots on any number of topics, and you can’t police their stupidity. Other teams already make it seem like the league isn’t ready for an openly gay player by asking potential draft picks if they “like girls.” Bullying, we’ve learned this year, already happens. Those aren’t dependent on an openly gay player. They already exist without one.
The teams are right that the NFL’s first openly gay player will be a major media story. It will be heralded as a major achievement and milestone in the fight for LGBT equality, as it should be. I just don’t think it will be the sustained media story they say they fear when they back off from signing a gay player. There will be issues that will be explored, questions that will be asked, stories that will be written. There will be talk about it because we love to spend hours talking about everything NFL, no matter the topic’s gravity or banality. But my guess is that most players already know they play with gay teammates, that they’re fine with it, and that their support would dampen many stories that could otherwise look negative for the league. Once everyone in and outside the NFL realizes that a gay player is still just a football player, there just won’t be much more to write than there already is. We’ll instead move on to the next hot topic, whether it’s a penalty that cost a team a game, a match-up between two of the sport’s best quarterbacks, or Donte Whitner’s on-again off-again decision to change his name.