NEW ORLEANS – Just hours after San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver was surrounded by microphones and forced into an apology for anti-gay remarks, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo was on television acknowledging he was gay. He spoke of his desire to have a relationship with what he says was an unwitting Manti Te'o, driving him to impersonate a female online and over the phone.
Te'o maintains he is "far from" gay, a question no less than Katie Couric asked him. His answer is worth accepting if only because it's not anyone's business who someone chooses to love.
The real issue is even if Te'o, or another athlete, were homosexual, how in the world would they summon the fortitude and accept the risk to come out while seeking a professional life in an NFL locker room? Clearly, at least in some number, locker rooms are still populated by bigots who agree with Culliver.
"It's going to take a very courageous person," said Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brandon Ayanbadejo, who is straight but a very public supporter of gay rights.
Culliver told the Artie Lange Show on Tuesday that San Francisco "ain't got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up outta here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff."
Culliver's comments were stupid, but no less stupid was his willingness to say what many players think, even if they suggest the opposite.
Ayanbadejo estimated that 50 percent of the league agrees with Culliver, 25 percent disagree with him and 25 percent may not be in complete agreement on issues such as gay marriage but are accepting of everyone.
While that's far behind society at large, where gay co-workers are everywhere and even equality in marriage laws are getting passed in some states, Ayanbadejo figures that's actually an improvement from the start of his 14-season career.
"You went from 95 percent of the people thinking like Culliver, so we're definitely winning the battle," Ayanbadejo said in advance of the Ravens-49ers showdown in Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday.
Still, why are pro sports so far behind other segments of society on acceptance?
"Do you want the truth?" Ayanbadejo asked.
"You can't handle the truth," he said, channeling his Jack Nicholson with a laugh. "I honestly have my opinions why, but I really can't voice them right now. I think it's something I can talk about after the Super Bowl. It's tough to be sitting here talking about equality. Naturally that's the most important thing, but right here and now I'm focused on the Super Bowl."
When the problem is that deep – too deep for perhaps the most outspoken player in the league to even honestly discuss – then it should serve as a wake-up call to the league that a real dialogue is overdue. There would never be such concern on other equal rights issues.
Of all the items that football is dealing with right now, this is one that isn't difficult to tackle. The NFL and NFLPA could use their bully pulpit on an important campaign to raise awareness on acceptance throughout sports.
The Culliver comments were ridiculous and quickly condemned, but their impact will linger, and not just in the NFL. There are more than 10,000 players in major college football, and none are publicly out. The percentages aren't much better at the high school ranks.
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The impact can be devastating, especially on teenagers. Having young people forced into living a lie can lead to all kinds of coping mechanisms from substance abuse to even suicide, a simply sad and unacceptable waste in this day and age.
Te'o has been dogged by a million jokes for just being in the middle of such a bizarre story and those will only grow after Tuiasosopo dishes to Dr. Phil. It was bad enough when his girlfriend wasn't real; now she's a gay man? Some wonder if he'll slide in the NFL draft and, if so, what's the real reason.
It may be that the only way this barrier gets broken is if a truly top-line player is unfortunately outed. Then due to the athlete's strong play, teammates and opponents will be forced to see things in a different light.
"If you're an amazing player the acceptance is going to come a lot easier," Ayanbadejo said. "It's going to be like, 'Oh man, I didn't know gay people could be such amazing athletes.' "
Ayanbadejo says he understands why the average player who is fighting just to stay in the league stays in the closet.
"You have to think about it, you're playing a short-term game," he said. "The average is three years. You have three years to play this game; why would you make things any tougher on yourself in those three years?
"Why would you want to make your job harder? Until mentalities change and people are more accepting, then it doesn't make sense to do it. If your dream is to play football and you've dealt with the discrimination and hid everything that long, then you might as well just play and finish and do things after."
The league is, in certain spots, trying. Ayanbadejo, Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and other players have politicked for gay rights. When a Maryland politician condemned Ayanbadejo for his work on a gay marriage referendum, the Ravens unequivocally supported their employee. Meanwhile, the 49ers have partnered with the It Gets Better Project that reaches out to young people facing harassment. And the NFL is expected to include a presentation from Athlete Ally in future rookie symposiums.
The NCAA, which is the feeder system for these players and is made up of what is supposed to be open-minded public institutions, needs to do more also. A few schools, including UCLA, Connecticut and Duke, have joined up with the You Can Play organization that combats homophobia in sports, but the number is painfully low.
"There's a lot more we can do," Ayanbadejo said.
If nothing else it's long overdue for the NFL and its players to move beyond the accepting stage and into the welcoming one. The culture of ignorance still plagues this sport and that should humiliate everyone involved in the league. It's a stain on everyone.
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Ayanbadejo figures the reaction will be so positive for that first openly gay player that the entire issue will spin on a dime.
"People would be writing books about it and making movies and it would turn into such an awesome story. [We could] really call it our Jackie Robinson athlete," he said.
"We know that he's out there, we're just waiting for him to embrace it and everybody to embrace him," Ayanbadejo added.
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