Gay on the Gridiron

It was a very gay week.

The U.S. Supreme Court, having never before considered the question of same-sex marriage, did so twice in consecutive days.  One case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, concerns the legality of California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay marriages in the state; the other, United States v. Windsor, seeks to repeal Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which effectively refuses to acknowledge such unions at the federal level.  The Court is expected to decide both cases in June.

To mark this unprecedented confluence of official interest in homosexual matters, throngs of supporters and opponents of same-sex couplings (mainly supporters) turned out in Washington, D.C., to register their views, and Facebook quickly grew saturated with red equal signs in a nationwide show of solidarity with Team Gay.

In this environment, bursting with respect and goodwill, we have again been confronted by the prospect of an openly gay athlete in a major American sport, and the question of whether we are “ready” for such an event.

The cause this time, rather than some stray anti-gay comment or the like, was a rumor that a particular member of the National Football League (as yet unnamed) is considering coming out in the near future, which no active NFL player has yet done, thereby lending fresh urgency to the question of national readiness.

This would be the moment—as pertinent as any—to define our terms.  In asking “Is the NFL ready for an openly gay player?” we would do well to clarify what exactly we mean by “the NFL” and what “ready” entails.

To encompass both considerations at once, we might fairly and bluntly acknowledge that the most immediate concern is how often a gay footballer could expect to be called “faggot,” whether by NFL fans, by rival players or, most disturbingly, in his own locker room.

The fear, after all, is for a retread of the kind of hostile environment that ensued when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.  As Major League Baseball’s first black player, Robinson was called “nigger” not only by idiotic fans, but also by idiotic members of opposing teams, and was subject to physical abuse and intimidation on the field of play itself.

Is homophobia as bad in sports today as racism was in 1947?  I suppose we’re about to find out.

While analogies are often drawn (not least by me) between the black civil rights and gay rights movements, the two are distinctive in at least one critical way:  Gay people have the luxury of hiding their homosexuality, if they wish.  Concealing one’s skin color is a more exacting trick to pull off.

What this means, in all likelihood, is that the first NFL player to come out will already be known to a public that, until now, will simply have assumed him to be straight.  His sexuality will be new, but his presence on the gridiron will not.

The NFL doesn’t need a Branch Rickey figure to scout out promising gay players to add to its ranks.  They are already there.

On that point, I close with a math problem.

A 2012 Gallup survey found that 3.4 percent of Americans identify as gay.  We can only speculate about the number of Americans in the closet, but we can safely assume it to be considerable.

Supposing, for the moment, a true gay population figure of 5 percent, and further supposing that gays are evenly-distributed across all walks of life, we find that the NFL, with more than 1,600 players on its active rosters, presently contains somewhere in the vicinity of 80 gay souls—an average of two or three per team.

I perform these calculations as a form of good news for whoever the Jackie Robinson of gays turns out to be:  However long it takes to verify, he will not be the only one.

And it probably won’t take long, because coming out is as much in vogue as ever it has been, and has proven susceptible to the domino effect:  When one closet door opens, a thousand others follow.

Therein (maybe) lies our answer to the “ready” riddle:  Like the country at large, the NFL and the other major sports have never really had the chance to prove themselves capable of accepting gays, because until quite recently, gays have chosen to be invisible.

Today, with this no longer being the case and homosexuals having shown themselves to be identical to heterosexuals in every way but one, all the old stigmas and prejudices are slowly but steadily washing away, and it is only a matter of time before the NFL sees what is directly in front of its nose and responds the only way that it can:  With professionalism, respect and, ultimately, a hearty sigh of indifference.

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