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One of the first times we spoke his words were blunt. "If we're not careful this thing could get me (expletive) killed," he said. "If anyone finds out, I'm dead."
That was Steven Thompson in 2004. He was an active gay player in the National Football League when we spoke for a book I was writing about the sport. Of course, his name wasn't really Steven Thompson. It was a pseudonym used to protect his identity. Thompson truly believed that if anyone in football discovered he was really gay - not the overly sexual hetero he portrayed himself to teammates, playing the role with such skill it would make a Hollywood actor proud - serious physical harm would follow.
In decades of covering professional football, I'd never met someone so paranoid and artful at hiding behind invisible masks. He was insane and insecure, I believed, until he started talking and talking and talking some more about his closeted life.
He spoke about the ugly homophobia rampant in locker rooms and how gay men were routinely viewed as animals and people to be feared, if not outright eliminated. My opinions of Thompson's paranoia changed from disbelieving to understanding and I thought then: there's no way the NFL or any other major American professional sport is ready for an openly gay athlete.
And now, some five years later? Those opinions haven't budged. Not an inch.
No way, no how, not any time soon. It'll be decades before anything like that happens in an NFL locker room, if ever.
Of course, some gay friends remark: People once said the same thing about an African-American becoming president. But Barack Obama achieving the presidency was easier. Yes, you read that right: easier.
Gays remain the last group of people society is allowed to hate and openly discriminate against. In the African-American community - and I'll get in trouble for saying this - we are sometimes the worst offender. The only thing viler in rap music than its open disdain for women is its rampant homophobia. In California, media reports bristled with news that 70 percent of blacks supported a recent proposition to ban gay marriage in that state.
Thus it's no coincidence the hardest line sports against openly gay athletes are in the black dominated ones like the NFL and NBA. Again, this will make some angry with me but it's true.
No, this won't occur any time soon but when it does this is how the barrier will be broken.
A highly ranked high school quarterback grows up openly gay in a progressive part of the country. He rises to be considered the top prospect in the nation and attends a school like Stanford or Cal.
He becomes such a great college player (while remaining openly gay) that NFL teams have no choice but to draft him.
And then he shows America what some of us already know...it doesn't matter. It never should have.
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