Michael Irvin: The Playmaker Preaches
By Cyd Zeigler
Homosexuality wasn’t exactly an issue that could be discussed in the football locker room, either -- unless, of course, it was in the form of the homophobic bile rife among his colleagues and friends. As Irvin’s national profile grew, he subconsciously distanced himself further from his brother’s sexuality.
“We went back to that day,” Irvin says of the car ride in Fort Lauderdale, “and through it all, we realized maybe some of the issues I’ve had with so many women—just bringing women around so everybody can see—maybe that’s residual of the fear I had that, if my brother is wearing ladies’ clothes, am I going to be doing that? Is it genetic? I’m certainly not making excuses for my bad decisions. But I had to dive inside of me to find out why I was making these decisions, and that came up.”
Years with this secret have given Irvin a glimpse into the solitary confinement so many closeted athletes feel locked inside.
“I’m not gay, but I was afraid to even let anyone have the thought. I can only imagine the agony—being a prisoner in your own mind -- for someone who wants to come out. If I’m not gay and I am afraid to mention it, I can only imagine what an athlete must be going through if he is gay.”
And yet, Irvin says, 15 years ago his champion team would have accepted a gay teammate on one condition: that the player could play. Winning was all that mattered.
“I believe, if a teammate had said he was gay, we would have integrated him and kept moving because of the closeness.” As a leader in the locker room, it would have been Irvin’s job to keep the team together, first and foremost. And if that job called for him to support a gay teammate and share his connection, he thinks he could have. “We had a bunch of different characters on that team. Deoin [Sanders] and Emmitt [Smith]. I believe that team would have handled it well.”
The quarterback of Irvin’s all-conquering team was Troy Aikman, infamously “outed” by sportswriter Skip Bayless in his 1996 book, Hell-Bent. Bayless wrote, “I had heard the rumor since 1991. An off-duty Dallas police officer who traveled with the Cowboys and worked security at their hotels first told me that the ‘word on the street’ was that Aikman was gay. Over the next four years, I heard the rumor from two more police officers who worked around the team, and I know they mentioned it to team officials.”
Did Irvin and his teammates discuss Aikman’s sexuality? Irvin pauses for a while before answering, “No, we didn’t. I didn’t think Troy was gay, but even if he had been, I think we could have handled it. Would it have affected the team? No sir. I was going to make sure of that.”
Irvin is certain that, in light of today’s relatively more enlightened attitudes, a team would have no choice but to embrace their gay teammate. He also notes that his 2009 appearance on Dancing With the Stars would never have happened 10 years ago, when he was still embodying the macho stereotype. “No way, man. I could not have done that kind of thing before.” (He made it to seventh place on the contest, but says it was tough: “There’s a difference between being quick on your toes on the field and going heel-to-toe on the dance floor.”)
So now that society has loosened up, is it wrong for a gay player to hide his sexuality, or is he still entitled to his privacy? “I think it’s his own preference, who he wants to share that with. But I would like to see players come forward and be happy with who they are.
“Hopefully, as we move forward, we’ll get to a place where there’s no way it’s even considered; it just is what it is and everybody can do what they do. That’s the ultimate goal.”
Irvin wants to eradicate homophobia in every corner of American society. He points to churches that have skewed the word of God to persecute those who don’t share their dogma; he shakes his head at the black culture he says has gone adrift in a sea of homophobia; and he said it’s time to end the second class–citizen status of gays in the eyes of the law.
“I don’t see how any African-American with any inkling of history can say that you don’t have the right to live your life how you want to live your life. No one should be telling you who you should love, no one should be telling you who you should be spending the rest of your life with. When we start talking about equality and everybody being treated equally, I don’t want to know an African-American who will say everybody doesn’t deserve equality.”
Love him or hate him, Michael Irvin doesn’t care. He’s on a mission. He hopes opening closet doors for gay people will be a key chapter in his life story. “I have to make sure we do things to bring people together. The Super Bowls will be the footnotes on my resume.”