by Chris Lingebach

WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – Is America ready for an openly gay athlete in professional sports?

There’s no real way of answering that question without witnessing it first, but one would hope we’ve evolved enough as a society that fans would be accepting of a player in taking such a drastic leap of faith.

Unfortunately, it’s not the fans standing in the way, so much as the players themselves.

Whatever goodwill had been built up toward the notion that the NFL environment may be accepting of such a radical change – an environment built upon toughness, the pinnacle of male dominance – was immediately struck down by the insensitive comments of Chris Culliver of the San Francisco 49ers.

Although, it should be noted that since making the reckless proclamation that the 49ers have “no gay people on the team” and “they gotta get up outta here if they do,” Culliver has acknowledged he will be assisting The Trevor Project, which provides crisis and suicide prevention to LGBT youths.

The sad truth is Culliver’s comments only confirmed the sentiments that are more than likely shared by locker rooms across the league.

For every Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo, who have been instrumental voices in changing the anti-gay culture which exists in the modern-day NFL, there is a Chris Culliver, or even a Matt Birk, who merely confirmed his belief in the traditional marriage between a man and a woman.

One step forward, two steps back.

In his column for Fox Sports Tuesday, Jason Whitlock raised the idea that a powerful voice coming out in support of gay players, such as commissioner Roger Goodell, would go a very long way in reversing the years of aversion to the gay lifestyle, which is felt, but rarely expressed by NFL players.

Whatever the case, difficult questions must be asked, and they should come from the commissioner’s chair. It’s Goodell’s job to protect The Shield. It’s Goodell’s job to protect the employees.

The best protection for the league and the players is the freeing of the gays.

Let’s be honest. I think it’s reasonable to assume that 15 percent of NFL players are gay and/or bisexual. Generally speaking, they’re forced to conceal their sexuality out of fear of being ostracized and potentially released from the team.

They need to be set free, released from the grip of the most hostile work environment in America. Is there a more homophobic work setting than a football locker room? I can’t think of one.

What Whitlock proposed could one day serve as the flood that breaks the dam; a dam which restrains some of the strongest, toughest men on the planet from openly living the lifestyle that allows them happiness.

As Whitlock points out, Goodell has an openly gay brother, and unlocking the closet door for gay players to be open about their lifestyle would be such a watershed moment, it could carve out a legacy which rivals that of former commissioner Pete Rozelle, who is remembered for popularizing the sport.

Lavar and Dukes addressed this hyper-sensitive issue on 106.7 The Fan:

“We’re the National Football League. If you can play football, you’re welcome to come and try to have a job within this company,” Lavar said. “We don’t have a discrimination against you if you are a homosexual. You are a man just like anyone else.”

“Is it on the commissioner to come out and do something about it?” Chad asked.

“I don’t think it’s on him, no,” Lavar responded. “But would it be an interesting move on his part? You know how many people would start being fans of football based off of that stance alone? And now it’s on the person that’s gay to step up and say ‘Listen, I’m glad Commissioner Goodell said it, because I’m gay.'”

Our society as a whole is drastically more accepting of the gay lifestyle today than it was even ten years ago. To take an example from pop-culture, what once seemed odd or groundbreaking to see a gay man on reality television is now commonplace.

What was once acceptable to refer to a friend tongue-in-cheek as ‘gay’ is now leaning toward culturally taboo.

America as a whole, has demonstrated these signs of advancement in all walks of life.

Everywhere except on the football field.

Similarly across the globe, rugby is viewed as being a tough guy sport. For this reason, it came as a shock in December of 2010 when Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas – an icon in the sport – came out of the closet, becoming the first active player in his sport to do so.

And how was the news received?

He was rewarded for his bravery.

Since making his bold admission, Thomas has been launched to super-stardom in Great Britain.

He’s now the star of a popular television show, and actor Mickey Rourke is rumored to have accepted a role to play him in an upcoming biopic about Thomas’ life.

In contrast, Lavar proposed that people want to use an athlete coming out as an opportunity to say ‘I knew it,’ a very realistic outcome which perhaps highlights our obsession with ‘gotcha’ journalism more than it does any lingering anti-gay sentiment in this country.

Even still, while many progressive-minded Americans may want to see an openly gay athlete in professional sports as a test of the evolution of our society, it’s still something we should neither root for nor rush, because it is a personal journey.

All we can do is everything possible to promote an environment that is accepting of such an accomplishment.

And as Jason Whitlock points out, maybe that starts with Roger Goodell.


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