Why We Won’t See a Gay NFL Player This Year
Since Jason Collins became the first active openly gay athlete in professional sports, to massive derision, fanfare and perhaps most importantly, publicity, speculation has reached a fever pitch as to when the next professional athlete will declare his sexual orientation in another major league.
National news sources, not to be denied the additional web traffic, have run stories based on almost pure speculation in an effort to out athletes, and have drummed up openly gay league hopefuls in anticipation of this milestone.
For the moment, much of this attention is focused on the National Football League, and for good reason. According to recent polling, football is America’s most popular sport, a distinction that carries with it an arguable, implied obligation to uphold the values of the nation as a whole.
Perhaps because of this, players are attempting to move the equality conversation forward. Former Baltimore Ravens star and current free agent Brendon Ayanbadejo said there will be an out NFL player "sooner than we think" in an interview with Reuters. Meanwhile, nine other NFLers have donated their names and support to encouraging a more tolerant league environment through pro-LGBT merchandise.
One NFL coach is suggesting, however, there is a demographic that will put a damper on the coming party: the NFL’s fans.
"I don’t think the locker room would have any problem with it," Bruce Arians, head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, said at a press conference on June 19. "The problem would be with the fans. I think especially opposing fans. Some of the things that are said are so over the top and out of control that I can imagine what some fans would say to an openly gay player."
Do Arians’s comments correctly assess the mentality of NFL players? Or the temperament of fans? And will the NFL see its first openly gay athlete this season?
Players Will Struggle When An NFL Athlete Comes Out
Despite Arians’s belief in his players, not everyone thinks NFL locker rooms will be unaffected when an openly gay player emerges. Dr. Alan Goldberg, a Massachusetts-based sports psychology consultant, who specializes in working with athletes who have experience performance blocks due to past trauma, suggests that the repercussions in the locker room will mirror those in society at large.
In an interview with EDGE, Dr. Goldberg said he believes NFL players will be affected depending on their value systems, religious backgrounds and personal experiences with gay Americans. The locker room will have both tolerant and intolerant people, he said. The difference, he suggests, lies in whether or not players will say anything publicly about it.
Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports.com, believes that Arians’ comments about the locker room miss the mark as well, but for different reasons.
"Everybody else has a problem, this is just the latest example," Zeigler told EDGE. "Fans [and] athletes have said over and over and over again, they’re not homophobic and they’re OK with gay athletes, but everyone else has a problem. Arians is just the latest to spew this nonsense."
Are NFL Fans Getting A Bad Rap?
NFL fans are certainly capable of coming together for a common good - Charities give millions to medical, educational and youth organizations every year. But, as post-championship riots prove, they are apt to lapse in judgment during the height of emotion, and fair or unfair, these events have led many to caricature their behavior.
Goldberg suggests fans’ reactions will be the most visible, and that’s because of the sport’s culture, a gay player in the NFL will face a greater challenge than players in other sports.
"I think the more macho the sport, the more ’tough’ the athletes appear to be, the more intolerant the fans could be," Dr. Goldberg said. "Your gender preference gets tied to how tough you are. If you’re tough, you’re a real man. A lot of this is tied to machismo model in sports."
Zeigler is less certain a gay player will have issues with fans, or at least any new issues.
"[Fans are] going to say what they already say," he said. "They already say it. What the hell else can you say?"
Zeigler also suggests the act of coming out will have its own benefits for the way we talk about sports.
"If someone comes out, [fans will be] less likely to use that language," Zeigler said.
Will the NFL Have Its Own Jason Collins This Season?
When it comes to this question, Dr. Goldberg and Zeigler both differed in their assessments. Dr. Goldberg says the tide has already begun to shift, that change is happening, and that ultimately, tolerance will come about when we struggle with this issue in the open.
"It’s time that this happened, it’s time that we evolve and that we’re not governed by our fears of differences," Dr. Goldberg said.
Zeigler said those looking for a gay NFL player will have to wait until next year.
"Were not going to see an NFL player come out as gay this season," Zeigler tells EDGE. "Coming out during the season could be a very selfish act. Jason Collins did it months before the next season would start... [Coming out before the season] would add undue pressure to the teammates and to yourself."