The League

Jim Buzinski
Sports Editor

Jim Buzinski

Co-founder of Outsports.com

Bated Breath

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"Is football ready for an openly gay player?" The short answer is no, but I don't think that's the right question. Society is often not "ready" for any kind of social change, but that has never stopped progress. The more relevant question is: Will a gay player come out? Yes, but I am not holding my breath.

Let's establish one thing - there are gay players in the NFL. How many is anybody's guess. There are about 1,700 NFL players. If we take the standard metric of gays making up 10% of the population, that would equal 170 players. Even taking an extremely low 1%, that would give us 17 gay players. Imagine if 17 NFL players came out tomorrow - it would be the biggest sports story of the past decade.

Even if one active player came out it would be big news, especially since no active player has ever come out publicly in the NFL, NHL, NBA or Major League Baseball. Sports remains the final closet in American society.

I would be surprised if a current NFL player came out. Years of reporting on this issue tells me that the fear of the unknown is too great for someone to be a pioneer - yet. Coaches like Lovie Smith say a player being gay would be no issue -- "We judge players based on one thing: Can they play football? If you can play football, you can get into the locker room." - but no one wants to risk being the first.

A gay player most fears the reaction from his teammates, the guys he practices with, showers with and spends most of his time with. Being different in any way is frowned on in a team dynamic, and players fear that coming out would ruin their career.

The reaction of fans is another fear. And while the media would be very supportive of any openly gay player, that player would contend with a media circus until the story died down. He would risk being defined solely by his sexual orientation. That's one label no player wants to wear.

Add in the short careers of NFL players (easier to deal with your sexuality after you've retired) and the macho nature of the sport, and I am not holding my breath over a gay player coming out publicly any time soon. But it will happen.

The culture is changing rapidly and sports does not exist in a vacuum. When Iowa legalizes gay marriage, you know that change is in the air. Players have grown up in a culture where gays are more visible than ever and more accepted. Younger people, especially, are gay-supportive and shrug over the idea of gays marrying or serving in the military. In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres created headlines when she came out as a lesbian. Entertainment figures now routinely come out and there is usually just a shrug. At some point, there would be this same collective shrug to an out player.

But sports are behind the curve on this issue, so I think we're talking years before we get a publicly gay player. I guess this person is still in junior high or grade school. The first will likely be someone who comes out in high school, so by the time he reaches the pros, his sexual orientation is old news. Outsports recently profiled a college kicker who is out to his team but not yet ready to go public since he doesn't want to deal with the publicity. Should he be good enough to make an NFL roster in a few years, I bet everyone would know he is gay.

The NFL might be moving at a glacial pace when it comes to accepting gays, but even glaciers eventually melt.

By Jim Buzinski  |  June 17, 2009; 7:26 AM ET  | Category:  NFL Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Does no one any longer recall Jerry Smith (Redskins, 1965-77), who died of AIDS? True, he never formally "came out," but the public knew and still like him.

Posted by: Nosy_Parker | June 17, 2009 4:05 PM

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