The League

Jason Maloni
Crisis Communications Expert

Jason Maloni

Senior Vice President with
Levick Strategic Communications
and Chair of the firm's Sports & Entertainment Practice.

We Need a Hero

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Being a gay professional or world class athlete means different things in different sports and, sadly, different rules apply to men and women. Individual sports like tennis, golf, diving and Olympic sports are more far more tolerant of gays and lesbians. Women's team sports are more progressive than men's team sports (yes, even as adults, girls mature faster than boys).

Only three NFL players have ever publicly disclosed their sexual preference for male partners and no active NFL player has ever come out of the closet. This would suggest one of two things: 1) either there are no gay players presently on any pro football roster, or 2) gay players exist and choose to keep this matter a secret for personal reasons. Logic suggests the latter.

When former NFL player Esera Tuaolo came out of the closet in 2002, following the lead of only David Kopay and Roy Simmons, he cited fear of hatred by teammates for the years of going through the motions of being a tremendously popular, outwardly heterosexual NFL defensive tackle. The old-time expression "sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me" seems both relevant and contrary here, as the 300-lb Samoan recounts stories of feeling empty and alone as he laughed along to locker room jokes regularly evoking words like "faggot" and "queer."

Stories like this fuel the perception that the NFL is perceived as intolerant of gay males, but I am not sure it is entirely fair to limit the conversation to one single sport. Many other sports as well as the military, business and other industries are likewise intolerant of gay males. Blaming the NFL alone for its perceived intolerance, and lumping all football players into a single category of dumb jocks, is just as ignorant.

When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wakes up in the morning, the first thing on his mind probably isn't "How can I get more gay males to love the NFL?" In fact, it probably isn't on his top ten list of things to do, and it shouldn't be. Growing the game in Europe, Mexico and Asia, keeping NFL athletes away from guns and blunts and encouraging owners to give head coaching jobs to African Americans are far more important priorities.

But I bet that agenda item is somewhere on his list. The NFL, as a business, is a ruthlessly savvy and aggressive machine and it long ago began niche marketing to women. And why not? A Sports Business News study from a few years ago cited the NFL's affluent fan base and said that 40 percent of its fans are women. Gay men are surely on the league's agenda somewhere down the line.

What may come as some surprise is that perhaps the NFL, and other professional team sportsmen, are slowly, but surely, becoming more welcoming toward gay teammates. According to a survey by Sports Illustrated, roughly 57 percent of NFL players, would be welcoming to an openly gay teammate. Now, this could be real evidence that gays are welcome, or it might prove the old adage that people will tell pollsters whatever they think the pollster wants to hear.

If gays in the NFL are hoping for a more tolerant, accepting culture in the league, then they will have to be the agents for change. If gay players hide themselves behind a false heterosexual front until they retire, then no one should expect them to suddenly galvanize a movement within the league after they're gone. As it goes with any progressive movement, it takes actors on the inside to catalyze a significant transformation.

Should closeted players choose to be more open and stand up to support what seems to be the current status quo--that gays are being accepted more and more in traditionally heterosexual, macho man markets--then the entire league stands to gain quite a bit on many levels, including filling stadium seats and driving television coverage.

Cameras flock to sports history when it's made, especially when personal and moving stories come into the picture. As the American public itself becomes more and more tolerant and progressive, it won't hurt the NFL in the long run if its gay players openly acknowledge their sexuality. Don't hold the NFL accountable when its players remain silent.

Yes it will be a public perception challenge when a current player comes out or is outed. But the NFL is about great stories, great victories and overcoming insurmountable odds. The only thing we need is a hero.

By Jason Maloni  |  June 17, 2009; 6:52 AM ET  | Category:  NFL Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: No "Gay" in "Team" | Next: Bated Breath

Comments

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Pee-Wee,

I'm disappointed you didn't figure out a way to mention rugby in this piece.

Posted by: gken69 | June 17, 2009 2:00 PM

The NFL can make it clear that harassment of a player who admits to being Gay will not be tolerated and mean it. The same goes for any potential female players. I am assuming that NFL officaly welcomes females and gay players to try out and play if they are good enough, if society and government should force that to change ASAP or we don't need the NFL next and in the future.

Posted by: Muddy_Buddy_2000 | June 17, 2009 2:31 PM

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