During a time when gay rights have hit the forefront of the American lexicon due to the marriage equality debate, the subject of homosexual athletes has once again become a hot-button issue.
Perhaps at the crux of he issue—at least for NFL players—is former first-round pick Kwame Harris. An offensive tackle for five seasons with the 49ers and Raiders, Harris’ homosexuality came to light after he was charged with assaulting a former boyfriend last August.
Though his defense attorney said at the time he was “not very public” about his sexuality, Harris appeared on CNN Friday and gave his first extensive public interview about his sexual orientation. When asked whether or not he ever considered coming out when in the NFL, Harris said the thought of becoming a pioneer never crossed his mind.
“No, not while I was playing. I didn't see those two things as being compatible," Harris said (via the San Jose Mercury News’ Cam Inman).
While there have been some that come out after their playing days like Harris, no NFL player has ever come out publicly during his playing career. It’s a fact that has led many to believe NFL locker rooms—filled with the stereotypical “meat head” bravado and competitiveness—would be unwelcoming to homosexuality.
Based on a recent report from CBS’ Mike Freeman, the world may soon find out what the climate is truly like for a gay NFL player. According to Freeman, a current homosexual player is “strongly considering” coming out publicly and would continue to play afterward.
The news of Freeman’s report came with a bunch of reactions—most of which were positive.
That falls in line with the increasing groundswell in the NFL community for the first active gay player to come out of the closet. It's been seen as a barrier-breaking step for acceptance of homosexuality in sports, a thumbing of the nose at the supposed close-mindedness of locker room culture.
NFL players have increasingly come out publicly saying they would be accepting of a gay teammate. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo has been arguably the biggest gay rights advocate among professional athletes and has been making waves, especially in the gay marriage debate.
Speaking at a gay rights rally at the Supreme Court—where justices were hearing arguments on whether or not California's Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage, is constitutional—Ayanbadejo gave an impassioned speech that led to a rousing ovation from the crowd.
Ayanbadejo compared the gay marriage ban to Loving v. Virginia—a case where the Supreme Court overruled a ban on interracial marriage in 1967—and said he hoped for a day where he could speak with a gay player openly about his family.
"I talk to that man about my wife and kids," Ayanbadejo said (via USA Today). "And one day that man is going to talk to me about his husband and his kids."
The 36-year-old linebacker's gay rights stance is perhaps only matched by Chris Kluwe, a punter for the Minnesota Vikings. When Emmett C. Burns, Jr., a Maryland state representative, sent a letter to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti imploring him to stop Ayanbadejo to stop publicly supporting gay marriage, Kluwe sprung to his fellow NFL player's defense.
He published a screed on Deadspin (h/t The New York Times) that criticized Burns for his stance, gaining national attention in the process. Kluwe later appeared in Out Magazine, a gay rights publication.
More recently, Kluwe appeared on Anderson Cooper 360 and professed that there would be support for players within the locker room.
However, there is a completely opposite, darker side of the spectrum. Kluwe and Ayanbadejo represent the supporters, but there are other NFL players who have expressed wariness or worse about a teammate coming out.
Prior to Super Bowl XLVII, 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver came under fire for his derogatory comments about homosexuality.
When asked on Artie Lange’s radio show whether he would be open to a gay teammate, Culliver indicated homosexuality wouldn't be welcomed in San Francisco’s locker room.
"I don't do the gay guys man," said Culliver (per Yahoo! Sports). "I don't do that. No, we don't got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do.
"Can't be with that sweet stuff. Nah…can't be…in the locker room man. Nah."
Culliver would later apologize for his statements and agree to undergo sensitivity training. But it’s comments like that—and Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons' comment that coming out would be “selfish” for a gay player—that make this such a tricky issue.
Later in Harris’ CNN interview, he exposed his internal plight while playing in the NFL.
"You want to escape this despair, this turmoil, and maybe your mind goes to dark places sometimes," Harris said.
While Harris obviously doesn't provide the voice for all homosexual athletes, his comments show the difficulty players face. They know there are players like Kluwe and Ayanbadejo who would be accepting, but the darker, more sinister side of fans and more close-minded teammates has proven to be a major obstacle.
When a player like Clemons says an openly gay player would divide the locker room, he’s being bluntly honest. It’s a tricky situation for homosexual players to navigate, especially considering the brevity of an NFL career and the league’s non-guaranteed salary structure. It’s an internal divide between being true to themselves and recognizing they could be putting millions of dollars on the line by speaking out.
The public and NFL may or may not be ready for a gay player—we really won’t know until it happens. But what Harris exposes is that it’s not a black-and-white picture.
There are internal difficulties that need to be accounted for, and until a player is comfortable enough to weather that storm, the readiness of all involved remains up in the air.