Nine months ago, when rumors were circulating that several NFL players were on the verge of publicly acknowledging that they are gay, I wrote in this space that they—and we—might be surprised at how little backlash they would face. I said that attitudes had changed enough, even in the buttoned-down NFL, that gay players wouldn't have as much to fear as they once did, that we all might be bracing for a storm that would not come. Now I think that theory might have been just like my annual Super Bowl prediction—dead wrong.
If Chris Kluwe's account of how his tenure as the Vikings' punter ended is accurate, the NFL, at least in some seats of power, isn't as tolerant as it appeared. In a first-person article on Deadspin last week, Kluwe, who was released by Minnesota last May after eight seasons with the team, recounted in disheartening detail how coach Leslie Frazier twice summoned him to his office during the 2012 season and urged him to stop speaking out in favor of marriage equality and LGBT rights. According to Kluwe, Frazier, who was fired last month after a 5-10-1 season, told him politics and religion are two topics that shouldn't be discussed in the NFL. Even worse, Kluwe says that special teams coordinator Mike Priefer made a number of homophobic remarks in his presence, including, "We should round up all the gays, send them to an island and then nuke it until it glows."
Kluwe, 32, who was cut by the Raiders at the end of training camp in August and didn't play this season, wrote that although he can't be sure his activism cost him his job in Minnesota, he's "pretty confident" that Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman consented to Priefer's desire to get rid of him. Frazier and Spielman, both of whom Kluwe called "cowards," have declined to comment about his accusations. Priefer issued a statement vehemently denying Kluwe's allegations, and the Vikings released another statement asserting that Kluwe was cut for football reasons only. But the team has also commissioned two lawyers, one a former chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, to conduct an independent review.
Former Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, a friend of Kluwe's who has also been an advocate for gay rights, questions the Vikings' motives too. "He was one of the best punters the Vikings have ever had, and suddenly he's out of work," Ayanbadejo says. "He could have picked a less controversial cause, like cancer awareness or telling kids to stay in school, and he'd probably still be in the league. But he chose to get involved in a cause that still makes some people uncomfortable."
If Kluwe's version of events is true, it's not difficult to imagine the chilling effect his story could have on gay players who are considering coming out. If it's a career risk for a straight player to publicly support gay rights, how much more of a gamble would it be for a player to be openly gay?
It appears that even rumors of homosexuality can affect a player's career. Kerry Rhodes, a veteran safety, was the subject of such speculation—he has denied that he is gay—on an Internet gossip site during the off-season. Rhodes, 31, went the entire 2013 season without being signed, which could have had something to do with the chatter about his sexuality. Or perhaps no team needed an experienced defensive back who had been a starter virtually his entire career and had a second-team All-Pro selection (in 2006) on his résumé.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has no reason to worry about his job security, but he still felt the need to refute rumors about his sexuality last week. On his weekly radio show, without being asked about the gossip, Rodgers said, "I'm just going to say, I'm not gay. I really, really like women."
None of this paints a picture of a league that would accept openly gay players with a "so what?" response. Ayanbadejo, who retired in 2012 after 10 NFL seasons, believes there is neither leaguewide resistance to gay players nor advocacy. "It's more on a case-by-case basis," he says. "When I was with the Ravens, no one ever tried to keep me from supporting gay causes."
Whenever an athlete does come out, a portion of the public reaction is invariably, "I could care less whether any of these players are gay or straight. Why do we even have to talk about it?" One reason it's news is that coming out, or even speaking out, is still a roll of the dice, maybe even a risk to an athlete's livelihood. Why do we have to talk about it? If leagues like the NFL were as evolved as they would like us to believe, we wouldn't.
Is the NFL ready to accept an openly gay player?
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JOHN BURGESS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED