Mike Freeman at CBS Sports has floated the idea that someone currently playing in the NFL will be coming out soon. As he writes:
"Based on interviews over the past several weeks with current and former players, I'm told that a current gay NFL player is strongly considering coming out publicly within the next few months -- and after doing so, the player would attempt to continue his career.
"I'm told this player feels the time is now for someone to take this step -- despite homophobic remarks from San Francisco 49ers defensive back Chris Culliver and the controversy arising recently at the Indianapolis Scouting combine, when prospects were asked questions about their sexuality.
"This player's true concern, I'm told, is not the reaction inside an NFL locker room but outside of it. The player fears he will suffer serious harm from homophobic fans, and that is the only thing preventing him from coming out. My sources will not say who this alleged player is."
The NFL Draft will take place next month, and the regular season begins at the end of the summer, so we're probably waiting until that point—especially with the combine controversy surrounding questions about a player's sexuality. Although OutSports reiterates Freeman has considerable credibility since he has written about closeted NFL players in the past, even more problematic for me is the headline he chose for the story: "Some believe atmosphere is safe for gay NFL player to come out."
Safe? What does he mean by safe? Does he mean there will be some sort of gay panic and the straight players will gang up on newly out player. No, that's not likely. From what he writes, Freeman seems to think that players fear homophobic fans. But that's also dubious. What about the incredible attention and support straight football player Brendan Ayanbadejo has received for his undying support for marriage equality? Or even when Out featured NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, also straight, on its August 2011 cover? It was a watershed moment—blogged about around the country—but no one was beat up over it.
Rather Freeman and others in sports must mean it's "safe" for the player's career, his lucrative product endorsements, and the ability to parlay his sexuality to a new level of fame and fortune. When I spoke with Megan Rapinoe last year before the 2012 Olympics, she already had lucrative deals with Nike, and when I questioned a Nike representative about her impending coming out, they saw it as a bonus, not a negative, since it would raise her profile and attract even more ardent fans. In fact, some in the sports arena feel that the first openly gay player will end up succeeding in unexpected ways.
When I spoke to former Pittsburgh Pirates owner and manager Kevin McClatchy earlier this month, we touched on this topic. He decided to come out publicly after he left the sport, and as someone who understands the ins and outs of the sports industry, he made the point clear that fans can be rough, no matter what they know about your personal life.
"When I would go to Shea Stadium, I would have to have a policeman stand by me all the time because I was the owner of the visiting team," he explained. "Shit would fly out of people’s mouths; people call you names. If they yell out ‘fag’ to me, that’s no big deal. At the same time people are yelling, there will be tons of people in that balllpark supporting that person just a little bit extra [for being gay]. If you're the first gay athlete you're going to be embraced—especially from a marketing standpoint. I think people will be shocked by the outpouring of support that first out gay athlete will get."
Since so many people bring up Jackie Robinson as an example, I asked him what he thought about that comparison, as McClatchy explained: "The stuff that Jackie Robinson had to go through was awful. There weren’t too many supporters of his in the stands. Today, the gay professional athlete will not have to take 1/20th of what Jackie Robinson had to endure."
So is it a safe environment? Absolutely. Is it easy? No way. But as many in sports feel: it's ridiculous that it's the last place in America where homophobia is institutionalized and allowed to fester.