Chris Culliver, in the eye of his self-created media storm. (Doug Farrar)
NEW ORLEANS — San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver has started a grand total of six games in his two-year NFL career. He has three interceptions and he plays in his team's nickel sets when he's not starting. He is a very important player — he made Shutdown Corner's midseason All-Underrated Team — but he's hardly a big name.
However, after the statements he made on the Artie Lange Show on Tuesday regarding homosexuals not being welcome in the NFL, Culliver found his table at the team's Thursday media availability overrun by reporters looking for clarification and comment.
''I don't do the gay guys, man. I don't do that,'' Culliver said during the interview with Lange. ''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 ... Can't be ... in the locker room, nah,'' he said. ''You've gotta come out 10 years later after that.''
Damage control was swift after the news hit the wires with all the force of an Aldon Smith sack.
''The derogatory comments I made yesterday were a reflection of thoughts in my head, but they are not how I feel,'' he said in a statement released by the team. ''It has taken me seeing them in print to realize that they are hurtful and ugly. Those discriminating feelings are truly not in my heart. Further, I apologize to those who I have hurt and offended, and I pledge to learn and grow from this experience.''
Culliver didn't have any more to say than that when he was surrounded by the media.
"I was really just ... not thinking," Culliver said on Thursday morning when asked what his mindset was what he made those remarks. "It was something that I thought, but definitely not something I feel in my heart."
That's an obvious about-face from a promotional standpoint, and after some time with the team's coaching and public relations staffs, one wouldn't expect Culliver to say anything else. When he was asked if he would welcome a homosexual teammate in the 49ers' locker room, Culliver paused and sounded far less than convincing.
"If it is ... it is," he said. "We're all treated equally in the locker room."
He won't let this be a distraction, he has no problem with homosexuals in football, he hasn't addressed his teammates, and he did most certainly talk to his coach. If you were expecting some sort of revelation from Culliver after all the drama, prepare to be disappointed. He was clearly told what to say and what not to say, and he didn't deviate.
"We reject what he said," 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said on Thursday morning. "That in no way reflects how the organization feels, and how most of the players feel. His impact going forward on the team is something we'll think about. He will learn from it, he made a statement, and he pledged to grow from it. We hope it will affect him in a positive way going forward."
Both Harbaugh and Culliver refused to detail what was said between the two when they spoke about what Culliver said. The questions for Culliver are two: Will there be any playing-time ramifications after what he said? And how will he change for the better after this debacle?
The answer to the first question seems pretty clear — as boneheaded as Culliver was when he said what he said, taking him out of the game for any serious amount of time would just hurt a 49ers defense that will definitely have its hands full with Baltimore's high-flying offense.
According to playing time data kept by Shutdown Corner's Brian McIntyre, Culliver played in 63.2 percent of the 49ers' defensive snaps through the 2012 season — 670 out is a possible 1,060 plays. That puts him third at cornerback behind starters Carlos Rogers (97.8 percent) and Tarell Brown (97.3 percent.) Were the 49ers to take Culliver off the field for his comments, that would leave primary nickel and dime roles to Perrish Cox (15.1 percent of all defensive snaps) and Tramaine Brock, who played in a grand total of 2 percent of the team's defensive snaps.
Given Baltimore's recent preference for three-wide sets and deep receiver combinations, Harbaugh may indeed be wise to focus on Culliver's future after the Super Bowl is done.
The second question, of course, is far more complicated. And it's not even so much about how Culliver will learn and grow from this — he's not generally a starter, and he's certainly not a major name. The real question has to do with locker room culture, the possibility of putting people who are different in corners they're trying to get out of, and taking steps away from the idea of true equality in the NFL.
Everyone will give the right, pat answers when asked whether Culliver's words are truly representative of the way most players feel. We won't know for sure until and unless someone is brave enough to test those potentially dangerous waters.
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