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Debate: Do All the Rumors Around Aaron Hernandez Prove the NFL Is Homophobic?

Rumors that Aaron Hernandez was bisexual have swirled for the past week following his apparent suicide in prison last Wednesday.

The former New England Patriots tight end was serving a life sentence for murdering former friend Odin Lloyd, and some believe — admittedly, primarily on gossip sites — both the murder and suicide were motivated by Hernandez wanting to keep bisexuality a secret. Hernandez murdered Lloyd to keep him from speaking out about his sexuality, evidenced by his male lover in prison, according to these unsubstantiated claims.

The tragic string of events have reignited a debate about how amenable the NFL is to having gay players. That a player might have resorted to murder and then suicide to keep his bisexuality quiet portrays the league as incredibly homophobic.

And yet, Cyd Zeigler, the founder and editor of Outsports, SB Nation’s site for LGBT issues in athletics, says the perception of the NFL as homophobic is wildly overblown. NFL fans are more than ready to have an openly gay player in the league, he argues.

Having grown up in the hyper-macho world of football, I strongly believe otherwise, and that Zeigler is suffering from wishful thinking.

Zeigler and I took to Gchat yesterday morning to settle the debate and discuss all of the issues contained therein — namely, whether the NFL is ready for an openly gay player, the word “faggot” in the context of sports locker rooms and the difference between overt homophobia and rampant heterosexism.

JM: We both agree it’s insensitive to speculate on Hernandez’s sexuality given it’s all innuendo and he’s not alive to defend himself. But this does bring up our old debate about whether the NFL is LGBT friendly.

For me, the fact no openly gay player has ever played a down in an NFL regulation game is indication enough of the league’s homophobia. Because there are only two possible explanations for this:

  1. There are gay players who don’t yet feel comfortable coming out. Or
  2. The league, and football more generally, is such an uncomfortable space for gay players that they leave the sport long before they ever even get a chance to make the NFL.

CZ: In my brilliant book, Fair Play: How LGBT Athlete Are Claiming Their Rightful Place in Sports, I share the story of Howard Bragman, the openly gay publicist in the very accepting city of West Hollywood who helps celebrities come out of the closet. (Nice plug, right?) Howard, his office, his industry and his location are gay, gay, gay, gay. Yet he had an employee who wouldn’t come out to him. The guy has since come out and is gay, but at the time, his own life, demons and insecurities held him back. Is it indicative of the environment of Howard’s office, city and industry that this guy wouldn’t come out? No. It’s indicative of where this particular guy was in his life.

NFL players are largely 20-somethings who are being pulled in 100 different directions and are just trying to make a team for a paycheck. They have so much more going on in their lives than thinking about telling the world they’re gay.

Add to that people in the media constantly telling them “the NFL is homophobic so you better stay in the closet,” and you have a recipe for no out athletes. I blame the media and its complete failure to show the true nature of the NFL and its athletes for this far more than the NFL itself. If media members opened their eyes, maybe they would see.

JM: If Colin Kaepernick’s actions from last season proved anything, it’s that NFL fans don’t want social issues intruding on their enjoyment of the sport. I’d have to imagine a gay player sees the beating Kaepernick took online and in the press, and says to himself, “This environment leans socially conservative, and is not amenable to my coming out.”

CZ: Everyone always blames the fans. It’s funny, because every single poll of fans in the last 15 years has said at least 75 percent of them would welcome a gay player on their favorite team. Some polls say it’s 90 percent. Yet, it’s the fans’ fault. Lol.

What we at Outsports have found is that when you actually talk to the athletes about these issues, they open up and say they don’t care. They have gay brothers. They have gay friends. They played with gay teammates in high school.

And comparing a gay athlete coming out to a guy kneeling during the National Anthem is like comparing apples to office furniture.

JM: Is it? Because when Michael Sam kissed his boyfriend after being drafted in 2014, ESPN caught it live on air and was flooded with complaints. Some viewers even complained to the FCC.

They’re a loud minority and don’t represent the totality of the the NFL’s fan base, but I totally understand why a player wouldn’t want to deal with that backlash and keep his sexuality a secret. Would those same fans complain if they saw Tom Brady kiss Gisele after a game on the field? I think not.

CZ: ESPN broadcast Sam kissing his boyfriend, then stuffing each others’ faces with cake. They played it over and over again. They made a spectacle of it. Peter King, who criticized Michael Sam for not behaving like a 7th-round pick, led his post-draft column with the title “Sealed With A Kiss.” None of this was Michael’s doing. None of this was a gay athlete coming out. This was media spectacle.

So thank you for making my point about the media.

JM: I’m not defending ESPN, but I don’t draw that big of a distinction between sports media and sports fan. They have a codependent relationship. Does sports media dictate what fans see, discuss and think, or does the media just cater to what they want? I don’t know if you could ever answer that question definitively, but it’s a more symbiotic relationship than you’re letting on.

CZ: There’s zero evidence that fans would reject a gay NFL player. Zero. Yet here we are still discussing it as though it’s fact. With Sam, the complete opposite happened. As a 7th round pick, he had the fifth highest jersey sales in the entire NFL after he was drafted. I was at his first game in St. Louis. I talked to the fans. There were no protests. The average fans tailgating outside the stadium were gregarious about having him on the team. They were excited. Yet here we are still talking about fans’ acceptance when there is literally zero evidence it would be an issue.

JM: Let’s concede that fans indeed don’t care about a player’s sexuality. Front offices still perceive having a gay player as a problem, though. Last year the Atlanta Falcons asked a draft prospect about his orientation, for example. That’s a clear sign they were worried he was gay, and any media frenzy or controversy that may have come from drafting him.

CZ: Now there we have some agreement: Clearly the guys in suits have a trust issue. They don’t trust their players about anything. They don’t trust their bosses to keep them. They don’t trust the coaches they hire. If they did, they would trust in the leadership they’ve set up to work through any issues regarding gay players.

Several of these cowards anonymously told Sports Illustrated that they would drop Sam down the draft board when he came out. There are plenty of upstanding front offices who do trust in their staff, coaches and players. I have zero doubt the New England Patriots’ front office would welcome a gay player if they thought he could help. But there are definitely front-offices out there who don’t want it. No question.

JM: So you’re saying there’s a disconnect between how fans feel, and how front offices think their fans feel, right?

CZ: At Outsports we’ve told the stories of about 500 gay athletes over the last 10 years. Every single one of them — football, basketball, baseball, Texas, Tennessee, high school, college — said that when they came out their teammates embraced them.

Some people say, “Well, the NFL is different.” Yeah, it’s even more accepting, according to every single NFL player I’ve ever talked to.

It’s the difference between a group of rowdy teenagers and a group of professional 20- and 30-somethings. It doesn’t even make sense to claim the NFL is somehow more anti-gay than any other corner of sports.

JM: Maybe I’m just letting my personal experience cloud my thinking. I never played in the NFL (sadly, it’s my life’s greatest failure), but I did play organized football from when I was 8 years old through my senior year of high school, and at every level, homophobic slurs were used liberally.

“Faggot,” “pussy,” “cocksucker,” “pansy”: That’s the language of football, as I know it.

CZ: Some people keep pointing to “locker room talk.” Every NFL player I’ve talked to, from Michael Irvin to Chris Kluwe, said gay slurs and anti-gay language was prominent in high school, present in college and virtually nonexistent in an NFL locker room.

And across all sports, stories abound of athletes hearing teammates use gay slurs, then being totally embraced after coming out to the exact same teammates. There is a disconnect between these slurs and their use for many men.

JM: You seem to be excusing locker room talk in the Trumpian sense, which is a strange argument to make when talking about social acceptance.

CZ: This has nothing to do with Donald Trump. This is the truth. Straight athletes don’t mean “I hate you” when they casually use this homophobic language. But that’s what the gay athlete hears. It’s a powerful and sad disconnect. Thankfully, I think that language is being used less and less as people come to understand how it makes their gay teammates feel.

JM: I agree those words aren’t intentionally homophobic for many men. I’m reminded of how Eminem defended using the word “fag” before performing with Elton John at the Grammys all those years ago.

CZ: There’s another key dynamic that doesn’t get talked about much, but I think it’s more powerful than gay slurs: Overt heterosexism. When all the guys in the locker room are talking about breasts and sex with their girlfriends, a gay athlete thinks, Man, this environment isn’t ready for me.

Again, it’s not the intended message. Guys are just bonding and not really thinking about the possibility of a gay teammate. But it does take its toll.

JM: And yet, it still boggles my mind there isn’t a single out NFL player. The law of averages dictates there must be at least one in the league, if not currently, then at some point in the league’s recent history.

CZ: Look, it’s a mystery to me, too. It’s shocking there are zero out athletes in all of the Big Four sports. Hell, very few former athletes come out. That to me is the most telling. If the problem is the leagues and the culture there, why have so few former players come out publicly? Here’s why: There’s so much more at play in someone’s coming out than the atmosphere of the league.

I will shoot one arrow at the NFL, though. While the atmosphere there is better than we give it credit for, the league and its teams are doing virtually nothing to make it better. There is so much more they could do.

Look at what MLB has done with Billy Bean. They’ve handed him the keys to the kingdom. Pride Nights. Rainbow team apparel. Training sessions. Media conversations. The NFL as a league does virtually none of that.

JM: You haven’t completely convinced me. I still struggle to wrap my head around the NFL as a gay-friendly institution, but I concede your point that that very perception may indeed be part of the problem.