Friday, March 01, 2013

Tackling the culture of anti-gay bigotry in the NFL

By Michael J.W. Stickings 

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The NFL is facing tough questions about anti-gay bigotry with reports that prospects at the recently concluded combine in Indianapolis were asked by teams, if indirectly, about their sexual orientation, obviously an effort to weed out the gays. 

The NFL, which according to a spokesman "prohibit[s] discrimination against any player, including on the basis of sexual orientation," is supposedly looking into it. 

Now, we all know there's widespread homophobia and anti-gay bigotry all throughout the NFL. Like the rest of professional sports (in America, but certainly elsewhere as well), it's rather behind the times in addressing this blatant problem, a bastion of hyper-heterosexual masculinity and repression, even if has made efforts to tackle (sorry) other forms of bigotry and exclusion (e.g., reaching out to women, particularly with respect to breast cancer awareness, and creating the "Rooney Rule" to require teams to interview minority candidates for vacant coaching positions). 

It's too early to say that things are changing for good, but there are certainly signs of acceptance on the horizon, not least because the league itself is finally being forced to address discrimination and is saying the right things in response, for public relations if not out of principle (better than nothing).

And even if there's no "Jackie Robinson" yet, a gay player who acts as a trailblazer, it helps to have a few outspoken players speaking out forcefully against the bigotry. One such player is the Minnesota Vikings' Chris Kluwe. Another is the Baltimore Ravens' Brandon Ayabadejo. As a Steelers fan, I'm supposed to hate the Ravens, and I mostly do, but this guy's the exception: 

Ravens linebacker Brandon Ayabadejo, a noted advocate for equal right and gay marriage,... joined MSNBC's The Ed Show with Ed Schultz on Wednesday, to discuss what might have gone on inside the combine's interview rooms. 

"Teams are really fickle, there's all kinds of things they want to know," Ayanbadejo said. "A lot of teams really want to talk to you, get a feel for your personality, see what you're like. If you give the wrong answers, that could be the difference between going to that team in the first round and slipping to another in the draft." 

Ayanbadejo said that he hopes the league soon has "our Jackie Robinson, our pioneer for gay rights and equality," but that incoming rookies should tell teams what they want to hear. 

"Selfishly, I think players need to say that they're straight right now," Ayanbadejo told Schultz. "You need to get drafted as high as you can get drafted, get the money while you can... 

"The way things are going right now with the bigotry that still exists and discrimination that still exists within the locker room and sports arena in general, I think you need to say, 'Hey, I'm straight, I love women', and keep things so-called normal. Maybe later, once you've established yourself and when we break down some of these walls in the NFL, players will be more comfortable to be who they are." 

Maybe you disagree with that, maybe you think a gay prospect should be open and proud, and maybe you're right.

But not everyone is up to be the next Jackie Robinson, and it's hard to fault young players for playing along with the culture of the NFL. 

But along with a Jackie Robinson, or two, or preferably more, the league also needs guys like Kluwe and Ayabadejo, and ideally also better-known players as well, a superstar along the lines of a Brady or Rodgers or Peterson, to speak out as well. 

Given the closed-off world of the NFL locker room, it takes courage, after all, even to go that far, and those who do should be regarded as the real heros of the league. 

I love football and I love the NFL, but this is a huge stain on the game and the league. It's time, long past time, for the culture of bigotry to be obliterated for good.

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