The NFL might seem like an unlikely organization to advance equal rights for gays and lesbians. It’s the last bastion of traditional machismo, right?
That’s what a lot of people thought when San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver made homophobic comments in a radio interview a few weeks ago.
“I don't do the gay guys, man,” Culliver told shock-jock Artie Lange. “No, we don’t got no gay people on the team; they gotta get up out of here if they do.”
That his words made headlines could be a sign of how much public opinion has changed. Just a few years ago, his comments would have incensed gay-rights activists and yet still have been tacitly accepted by a majority.
In 2008, 62 percent of Florida voters approved the Florida Marriage Protection Amendment, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Florida is one of 38 states to have banned same-sex marriage either through legislation or constitutional amendments.
However, in February, Public Policy Polling found that 75 percent of Floridians favor allowing gay couples to legally wed or form civil unions. The nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute found that 52 percent of Floridians approved of legalizing same-sex marriages.
In almost every poll conducted in the last few weeks, a majority of Americans say it should be legal for same-sex couples to marry — The New York Times/CBS News (53 percent support vs. 39 percent oppose), Pew Research Center (49 percent vs. 44 percent), CNN/ORC (53 percent vs. 44 percent), ABC News/The Washington Post (58 percent vs. 36 percent) and Fox News (49 percent vs. 46 percent). Nine states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage.
Given that sea change in public opinion, it makes sense that a few football players might share that perspective. Indeed, a band of football brothers has vocally supported same-sex marriage.
Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case of Hollingsworth v. Perry, which challenges California’s law against marriage equality. Oral arguments for that case, along with United States v. Edith Schlain Windsor challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act, took place the last week of March.
“When we advance the idea that some people should be treated differently because of who they are, demeaned in public as lesser beings, not worthy of the same rights and benefits as others despite their actions as good citizens and neighbors, then we deny them equal protection under the laws,” they wrote. “America has walked this path before, and courageous people and the Court brought us to the right result. We urge the Court to repeat those actions here.”
No player has come out while currently playing in the NFL — or any American team sport. Ayanbadejo said the first openly gay player would be like Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier.
“This is our time and our cause,” Ayanbadejo wrote in USA Today. “It’s as simple as putting our arm around the shoulder of another athlete. It’s a gesture; it’s a pledge; it’s solidarity at its most basic. Our Jackie is coming. We need to pave the way.”
Before that can happen, closeted players could use support from more teammates, the fans — and NFL leadership.
The NFL and other sports leagues have participated in “It Gets Better,” a campaign to provide hope for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other bullied teens.
Two San Francisco 49ers who took part in a video for the campaign — linebacker Ahmad Brooks and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga — first denied making the video, then said they didn't realize its aim was to fight bullying of LGBT teens. The resulting message, whether intended or not, was that bullying is bad — unless the victim is gay.
Another intolerant message the NFL sends is through the Kiss Cam during games. Jacksonville Jaguars fan Dave Uible recently sent a letter to owner Shad Khan describing the homophobic joke: After showing several happy heterosexual couples kissing, the camera shows two opposing male players insinuating that they, too, may kiss. Hilarious.
Uible’s letter, which he carbon-copied to several NFL leaders, Mayor Alvin Brown and Jacksonville City Council President Bill Bishop, condemned the practice, saying “If this were a ‘Muslim Cam’ or a ‘Black Cam,’ I'm sure the franchise would have gotten rid of it long ago.”
“I like the Kiss Cam — I think it can be fun. However, using it to make a homophobic statement is negative and unnecessary,” Uible wrote in an email to Folio Weekly. “I know a lot of gay season-ticket holders, and we buy $9 beers like everybody else at EverBank Field — we should be treated just as well as the next fan.”
Uible described the joke as “playground stuff,” but he’s more concerned about young children who could be watching.
“Bullies will be emboldened by it, and gay kids will internalize it. No kids should be made to feel badly about themselves. It’s a football game! Everyone should be having fun.”
Uible, 47, was born and raised in Jacksonville and graduated from The Bolles School and the University of Florida. He’s lived in several major cities and said he looks forward to what Jacksonville could be, even though the City Council failed to pass a Human Rights Ordinance amendment to protect those in the LGBT community.
“Like all cities, Jacksonville has some pockets of disturbing bigotry due to religious fundamentalism. But overall, Jacksonville is a very nice place to live, and the average local seems blasé about sexual orientation,” Uible said.
“Unfortunately, our city’s leadership has shown a deep lack of understanding and foresight,” he continued. “A lot of people don’t move or visit here because of our backward reputation. It’s a shame. Jacksonville has great potential, but our mayor and City Council have held us back. It’s time for big-time change.”
Time for change — both locally and nationally.
“Our country was founded on the principles of equality and liberty,” Uible said. “That means for all of us, not some of us.” o