Gay rights & the NFL

As the National Football League’s Super Bowl has grown in epic proportions to become U.S. television’s most watched single event, so has its media day, which occurs on the Tuesday before the Sunday game. On media day, the athletes and coaches, representing the American Football Conference and National Football Conference champions, are grilled by thousands of reporters from around the world on issues ranging from how nervous they are to be playing in the Super Bowl to political and personal views.

One of the political issues that gained a lot of attention during Super Bowl XLVII media day on Jan. 28 was an unfortunate anti-gay statement made by San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver. Culliver, who is 24 years old, told reporters that there were no gay football players on the 49ers, and that he wouldn’t want to have a gay teammate. It is reportedly the first time that anti-gay comments have been made during any Super Bowl media day.

To their credit, the 49ers issued the following statement on Jan. 30: “The San Francisco 49ers reject the comments that were made, and have addressed the matter with Chris. There is no place for discrimination within our organization at any level. We have and always will proudly support the LGBT community.” (, Jan. 30)

Hudson Taylor, the executive director of Athlete Ally, an organization that both raises consciousness and battles homophobia in sports, stated: “Chris Culliver’s comments are disrespectful, discriminatory and dangerous, particularly for the young people who look up to him. His words underscore the importance of the Athlete Ally movement and the key role that professional athletes play in shaping an athletic climate that affirms and includes gay and lesbian players.” (, Jan. 31)

Culliver did apologize for his comments. As part of sensitivity training, he has agreed to work with The Trevor Project, which helps lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth cope with discrimination on a daily basis.

The fact that the Culliver incident took place on Super Bowl media day, with its global reach, has helped to remind the U.S. public that more and more active players in the NFL — the most popular U.S. professional team sport league — are taking a principled position in support of gay rights, including same-sex marriage. For instance, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo supported the same-sex marriage bill passed in Maryland and even participated in a promotional video for the bill.

When an anti-gay, bigoted state delegate politician, Emmett Burns, tried to pressure Ravens’ executives into censoring Ayanbadejo, Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe came to Ayanbadejo’s defense.

Kluwe went as far as to publicly resign from his post as a contributor to the St. Paul’s Pioneer Press due to their “neutrality” on the same-sex marriage issue, which they declared in an editorial. Kluwe stated: “My main issue with the Pioneer Press editorial is this: It’s a lie. I have no problem with them taking a position I disagree with. What concerns me is them presenting a completely biased piece as a neutral position.” (, Nov. 3) Kluwe has appeared on Ellen Degeneres’ popular talk show to air his support for LGBTQ rights.

Other players, such as New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, Houston Texans linebacker Conner Barwin and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley have publicly backed gay rights. Former Atlanta Falcons and Vikings defensive linebacker Ray ­Edwards stated that he would be very open to having a gay teammate.

NFL players have historically come out as being gay only following retirement. However, the pro-gay attitudes publicly expressed by high-profile players — in a sport that is promoted as the epitome of “masculinity” — will definitely help to lay the basis for the day when active gay football players will feel free and safe to openly express their sexuality.

This development within the NFL and other professional sports is a reflection of and a testament to the growing strength of the broader, grassroots movement for lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer rights.

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