The 2012 NFL rookies aren't just bringing new energy and talent to their teams. Some of them might be clearing a path toward the open acceptance of gay professional football players.
Last week, the website Outsports, which covers sports for the gay community, went to the NFLPA Rookie Premiere events in Los Angeles to find out whether players would be comfortable playing football with a gay teammate -- and what they learned might surprise you.
"We were met with a gay-positive attitude from every player we talked to," writes Cyd Zeigler, Jr. "And some warmly welcomed us with open arms."
From President Obama's newly vocal support of gay marriage and the ensuing Newsweek cover ("The First Gay President?") to North Carolina's recent ban on gay marriage, the hot topic isn't cooling anytime soon. For gay rights activists, the support of NFL stars -- often seen as the epitome of masculinity -- is a big step toward tolerance.
Indianapolis Colts tight end Coby Fleener told Outsports, "As long as they competed on the field and gave it their all in practice, that’s all I care about."
Fleener played at Stanford, not far from San Francisco, where the gay community flourishes. He said that made him "very comfortable" with the culture. But even players from more conservative regions and colleges didn't hesitate to express their support.
Heisman Trophy winner and new Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III told Outsports about a high school teammate from Copperas Cove who came out and then quickly stepped down from the team. He said he has gay friends and wouldn't care at all if a fellow Redskin came out. After all, "Just because they're gay doesn't mean they're hitting on you," he said.
If you think it's just young rookies who are open to the idea of gay teammates, think again. Jevon Kearse, a three-time Pro Bowl defensive end for the Titans played in the NFL for 11 years and told Outsports he's sure he played alongside one or two gay players.
"In the game of football, it's like a war out there," Kearse said. “Once you get out on the field, all that stuff is to the side. You're on my side." His former teammate Eddie George agreed, and more NFL veterans opened up to say playing football and team camaraderie are far more important than a teammate's sexual orientation.
Former Giant Michael Strahan and Giants' owner Steve Tisch supported New York's legalization of same-sex marriage, and former Giant linebacker Antonio Pierce said it's all about "winning football games and winning championships," no matter how a teammate lives his personal life.
It all makes you stop and wonder: Maybe the NFL -- and major league sports in general -- aren't as homophobic as you might think. After all, a 2006 Sports Illustrated poll found that the majority of players in the MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL would welcome a gay teammate. That was the same year "Brokeback Mountain" got an Oscar nomination for Best Picture -- the year Esera Tuaolo released his memoir about being gay in the NFL. With so many more players openly discussing the idea -- and with a gay sports website -- it's likely that an updated poll would show athletes skewing even more toward acceptance.
There are other, more recent signals of progress for the gay community when it comes to major league sports.
Patrick Burke, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, was featured earlier this month in Sports Business Daily for starting a nonprofit to honor his brother Brendan, who was killed in a 2010 car accident just a few months after coming out. Their father is Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke. Patrick's organization, You Can Play, is working with the NHL and MLS on videos, merchandise and other media encouraging acceptance.
Maybe one day we'll see an NFL player starring in a You Can Play video. If Zeigler's Outsports story is any indication of a changing football culture in America, that might only be the beginning.
"These aren’t third-stringers we talked to. These men are NFL stats leaders, national champions and high draft picks," Zeigler writes. "They are the past, present and future leaders of the NFL."
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