I’m a football fan. I never played the game in any organized leagues but when I was young, my father took me to college games at his alma mater. Many of my friends played football and followed their favorite teams on television. After college I became more interested in the professional game—the National Football League—and studying the game became a hobby. Football is a surprisingly complex game and the NFL has many fascinating layers beyond the game itself—player safety and head trauma is a major topic of the day. The league’s salary cap, the college draft, free agency, coaching personnel and schemes, and many other subjects provide intrigue throughout the year—not only during the seventeen-week season. One story I’ve followed over the past two years is the off-field advocacy work conducted by Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo.
Kluwe recently wrote an article for Deadspin.com detailing his account of how his employment with the Minnesota Vikings came to an end in 2013. As a member of the Vikings in 2012, Kluwe campaigned actively against Minnesota’s proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, which voters in the state defeated at the polls in November of that year. While Kluwe’s activism was widely praised in the media, he claims he was treated with hostility by his coaches. Head coach Leslie Frazier, Kluwe claims, twice urged Kluwe to stop speaking on the subject. Kluwe also claims the Vikings’ public relations department received requests to interview Kluwe but the team failed to relay these requests to the player in an apparent effort to silence him. Most shocking is Kluwe’s claim that special teams coordinator Mike Priefer—Kluwe’s immediate supervisor—once voiced his opposition to Kluwe’s activities by stating, “We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows.” Kluwe claims the Vikings organization terminated his contract following the 2012 season not because of his on-field performance but rather because of his marriage equality advocacy. Interestingly, Kluwe, who was an above-average punter in his last season with the Vikings, was unable to find a job with any team in the NFL in 2013.
Ayanbadejo’s team in 2012, the Baltimore Ravens, is also located in a state that voted on marriage equality that November. In Maryland, voters supported a constitutional amendment to allow same-sex marriage and in the months leading up to the vote, Ayanbadejo became a folk hero for amendment supporters after a state legislator urged Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to silence the outspoken player. Delegate Emmett Burns’ letter read, in part:
Many of your fans are opposed to such a view [on same sex marriage] and feel it has no place in a sport that is strictly for pride, entertainment and excitement. I believe Mr. Ayanbadejo should concentrate on football and steer clear of dividing the fan base.
I am requesting that you take the necessary action, as a National Football League Owner, to inhibit such expressions from your employees and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions. I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayanbadejo is doing.
Burns’ attempt to silence Ayanbadejo met stiff criticism from free speech and marriage equality advocates alike. One particularly memorable criticism came from none other than Chris Kluwe in an open letter to Burns posted on Deadspin.com. Following the 2012-2013 legislative session, Burns opted not to run for re-election in 2014.
During the 2012 NFL season, when Kluwe and Ayanbadejo spoke on marriage equality, they were often asked if the NFL is ready for an openly gay player. At the time, there had never been an active gay player in the NFL. For that matter, there had never been an openly gay player in any of the major professional American sports leagues—Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, or the National Hockey League. Kluwe hinted that he had spoken to gay players in the NFL and that one or more of those players was planning to come out to his teammates and the media. These players have not yet made their identities known—but the NFL will likely soon have its first openly gay player in 2014.
University of Missouri All-American defensive lineman Michael Sam, in an interview with the New York Times published last Sunday, February 9, announced that he is gay. Sam, a senior at Missouri, is preparing for the upcoming NFL draft, where a team might select him. While there will be much written between now and May about how Sam’s announcement will affect his career, many draft experts believe that Sam will indeed be drafted by an NFL team. If true, the hypothetical question that Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo were asked so often in 2012: “would teammates accept a gay player in the locker room?” will be answered this summer as Sam reports to NFL training camp.
One should note that Sam is not guaranteed to be selected in the NFL draft. While many draft experts project him as a mid-to-late round draft pick, some anonymous team officials and scouts suggest that Sam is an “overrated” player and may not be drafted at all. Or, if he is invited to a training camp, he may not have the physical skills to succeed in the NFL. If Sam fails to make an NFL roster, some critics may assume that Sam’s sexuality is the cause. However, Sam is no superstar and his professional potential is very much in question. If he wants to be an NFL player, he will first have to prove that he can play the game on a professional level.
There is good reason to believe Sam will face other difficulties as well. Just as Kluwe discovered that same-sex advocacy was viewed as a distraction (or worse) by his coaches, Sam’s future coaches may find the young player a magnet for media attention. His teammates will be asked for their thoughts on the locker room’s acceptance of Sam. And while Sam will no doubt have some supportive teammates, a number of NFL players have spoken out against the possibility of a gay teammate. Shortly before the 2013 Super Bowl, San Francisco 49ers defensive back Chris Culliver was asked if he would welcome a gay teammate. He responded, “Ain’t got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up outta here if they do. Can’t be with that sweet stuff…Can’t be…in the locker room, nah.” And just last Friday, special investigator Ted Wells released his report on bullying allegations made by Miami Dolphins player Jonathan Martin, specifically against his teammates Richie Incognito, John Jerry, and Mike Pouncey. Wells’ findings not only demonstrate a vicious culture of bullying amongst Miami players and coaches but also pervasive homophobia. Regarding an unnamed player, called “Player A” in the report, Wells states that:
Martin and other witnesses informed us that Player A was repeatedly called a “faggot” and subjected to other homophobic invective […].
Incognito and others acknowledged that Player A was routinely touched by Incognito, Jerry and Pouncey in a mockingly suggestive manner, including on his rear end, while being taunted about his supposed homosexuality. Incognito specifically admitted that he would grab Player A and ask for a hug as part of this “joke.”
Martin said that on one occasion, Pouncey physically restrained Player A and, in full view of other players, jokingly told Jerry to “come get some pussy,” and that Jerry responded by touching Player A’s buttocks in a way that simulated anal penetration. Pouncey and Jerry both denied this allegation […].
The evidence shows that [Offensive Line Coach Jim Turner] overheard and participated in this behavior toward Player A. During the 2012 Christmas season, Coach Turner gave all of the offensive linemen gift bags that included a variety of stocking stuffers. In each gift bag except for Player A’s, Turner included a female “blow-up” doll; Player A’s bag included a male doll.
The culture that evolved in Miami seems to be extreme, even by NFL standards, and a positive outcome for Michael Sam and other gay players is certainly possible. In the New York Times interview, Sam notes that he came out to his University of Missouri teammates during the summer of 2013, while the team was preparing for its season. The Missouri team and Sam individually received many accolades and much media attention—yet Sam’s teammates kept his secret the entire year. And his teammates clearly respect him—they voted him Most Valuable Player at the season’s end. The Missouri football team proved that a football locker room can indeed welcome and support a gay player. And in the NFL, many players who have publicly made homophobic remarks are responding to outreach groups hoping to educate those players. In fact, after Chris Culliver’s remarks sparked controversy in 2013, he not only apologized for his comments but also agreed to attend counseling with the Trevor Project so he could better understand why his comments were so widely criticized. Culliver not only followed through on that promise, but later spent a day volunteering at the Trevor Project. While a single day of volunteerism is a small step to be sure, if Culliver can make that step, who says the rest of the NFL isn’t ready? We may find out, if Michael Sam indeed begins his NFL career in May.