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Being Gay In The NFL: The Secrets, The Culture, The Fear Of Coming Out & The Changing Attitudes
January 31, 2013
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Over the past year or so, we've seen encouraging signs that the pro sports world is changing when it comes to gay rights.

So, it's disappointing (although not entirely shocking) when something like this happens - just days before the Super Bowl.

This week, Chris Culliver of the San Francisco 49ers made anti-gay comments during an interview with radio host and comedian Artie Lange.

Responding to Lange's questions, Culliver said...

"I don't do the gay guys man. 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."

When asked by Lange whether a gay athlete would need to keep their sexuality a secret in football, Culliver said "Yeah, come out 10 years later after that."

being-gay-in-the-nfl-the-secrets-the-culture-the-pressure-the-fear-of-coming-out-and-the-changing-attitudes-feature1.jpg
Chris Culliver, San Francisco 49ers

It didn't help that Culliver plays for San Francisco, one of the most diverse and LGBT-friendly cities in the world.

However, he has since apologized - releasing a statement saying...

"The derogatory comments I made were a reflection of thoughts in my head, but they are not how I feel."

"It has taken me seeing them in print to realize that they are hurtful and ugly. Those discriminating feelings are truly not in my heart. Further, I apologize to those who I have hurt and offended, and I pledge to learn and grow from this experience."

being-gay-in-the-nfl-the-secrets-the-culture-the-pressure-the-fear-of-coming-out-and-the-changing-attitudes-feature2.jpg Today, he told reporters he was just "kidding around."

"I was really not thinking. Or, something I thought, but not something that I feel in my heart," Culliver said.

"Everyone is treated equally in our locker room."

49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said he spoke with Culliver about his comments.

"There's not malice in his heart. He's not an ugly person. He's not a discriminatory person. I really believe that this is something that he'll learn and grow from," Harbaugh said.

As an organization, the 49ers were the first NFL team to join Dan Savage's 'It Gets Better' anti-bullying campaign, which was started to support gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens.

Players from several Major League Baseball teams have also recorded videos for 'It Gets Better', and a number of NHL players have done spots for the 'You Can Play' campaign.

Another group called 'Athlete Ally' has more than 6,000 college and pro athletes who have promised to support fellow athletes regardless of sexual orientation.

being-gay-in-the-nfl-the-secrets-the-culture-the-pressure-the-fear-of-coming-out-and-the-changing-attitudes-feature4.jpg One of them is the NFL's Connor Barwin of the Houston Texans (left).

"My older brother is gay, and I was raised to respect and value all people. Embracing diversity is something I was always taught to do," Barwin told ESPN.

"Becoming an Athlete Ally Ambassador gives me a great opportunity to engage other players, coaches and fans about the importance of inclusiveness. It's about sportsmanship."

It's all part of a shift from the traditional "tough guy" and at times homophobic culture, to one of openness, acceptance and respect.

But public campaigns are one thing. A pro sports locker room is something else entirely.

As salon.com writes, "The professional sports locker room can be a scary place, with unwritten rules and political rankings that include which players get lockers next to each other -- or far, far away from one another."

"There are cliques, hazing, pranks, and outsize expectations of toughness. It's the ultimate site where the stereotypes of what it means to be a man get played out, and the challenge is to fit in and not shake up the coveted "chemistry" teams strive to create."

There's also this take from Doug Farrar of Yahoo sports: "The real question has to do with locker room culture... Everyone will give the right, pat answers when asked whether Culliver's words are truly representative of the way most players feel."

"We won't know for sure until and unless someone is brave enough to test those potentially dangerous waters."

In the NFL's long history, no active player has ever come out. And only five have come out after they retired.

The first was David Kopay, who played pro football for eight years in the 60s and 70s. He came out in 1977.

Eventually, Kopay revealed he'd had a brief relationship with a teammate - Jerry Smith - who died of AIDS without ever having publicly come out.

Another former NFLer Wade Davis came out last year and spoke publicly about what it was like to keep his sexuality secret in the NFL.

being-gay-in-the-nfl-the-secrets-the-culture-the-pressure-the-fear-of-coming-out-and-the-changing-attitudes-feature5.jpg
Former NFLer Wade Davis, photo SB Nation

"You just want to be one of the guys, and you don't want to lose that sense of family," Davis told OutSports.com. "Your biggest fear is that you'll lose that camaraderie and family."

Here's an interview Davis did with SB Nation.

In another recent interview with The Daily Beast, Davis said: "I think the real issue is that the idea that a gay man could play sports is an attack to straight guys' masculinity. This gay guy can play my sport better than me? What does that say about me as a straight guy?"

"I think that's why people had an issue. I think the world is evolving around the idea of what is masculinity.

Davis also said at least one "significant contributor" in the NFL or NBA is gay. And that he knows of three pro athletes, including a starter, who are gay and that many of their teammates know it.

"Not only in the NFL. There are some in the NFL and some in the NBA," Davis said.

"It's not talked about," he added. "(The player) is there to do a job, I'm here to do a job, it's not talked about. He's my brother. He doesn't treat me any different than anyone else does."

Davis went on to say "One particular guy I know of keeps things very separate. But everything else that his teammates do, he does. If they go to the Waffle House late night or if there's a barbeque or a smoke session at someone's house, this guy goes and just exists just like everyone else."

"His partner may not take part in that."

One day, as the Daily Beast writes, "there will be a gay Jackie Robinson. An openly gay athlete in a major American sport who's a great and popular player who helps revolutionize the way Americans view gay people."

But it won't be an easy road or decision.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers star Jerome Bettis spoke to the Huffington Post about the challenges gay players would face if they came out.

being-gay-in-the-nfl-the-secrets-the-culture-the-pressure-the-fear-of-coming-out-and-the-changing-attitudes-feature3.jpg
Former Pittsburgh Steeler Jerome Bettis

"Because it's so testosterone driven, it'd be really really difficult for a gay player to stand up and say 'hey, I'm gay and an NFL player," he said.

Bettis said he didn't have any openly gay teammates but he knows someone probably was, just based on the numbers.

As for a teammate coming out, Bettis said no problem. "If your play is to the caliber where you belong here, you belong here."

Wade Davis also talked about the pressure.

"We want this person to come out and save the world when he's probably not even ready to save himself."

"What if he says 'I don't want to be on the cover of Out... I don't want to be sexualized?' Everyone doesn't exist in that sphere and if he doesn't follow that pre-existing roadmap then he's not going to be good enough to be that person."

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