If football isn't the ultimate masculine/gladiator sport, it's certainly right up there. As a result of that factor, not to mention the perceived group-think of the locker room, meeting room and huddle, and supposed "caveman" mentality some believe it takes to play the game, there are some who would tell you that no openly gay player would be able to survive (literally or figuratively) in the NFL. But in a recent series of interviews with current and former NFL players, OutSports.com found that the perception is not reality. If the small group interviewed represent the majority, attitudes have definitely come around about any NFL player who would choose to come out.
Former star defensive end Jevon Kearse, who once lived with an openly gay male cousin, told OutSports that as long as such a teammate did what was expected of him between the lines, the personal stuff wouldn't really matter -- and that was the overriding message from the players interviewed.
"In the game of football, it's like a war out there," Kearse said. "Once you get out on the field, all that stuff is to the side. You're on my side. I played in the NFL for 11 years, I'm sure there were at least one or two guys along the line that were gay."
Kearse's former teammate with the Tennessee Titans, running back Eddie George, said the same, and added that he didn't believe an openly gay teammate would have been ostracized on any of his teams.
"I just don't care about that," George said. "If that's what you do, that's what you do. I don't hate you because of it or dislike you because of it. That's not my personal preference, but I respect your decision. I'm not going to like you less or not be your friend because of that."
That tolerance goes back further than you think. Vince Lombardi, seen as the ultimate authority figure, and championed as a pillar of supposed "clean-cut" values for generations of football fans, had an openly gay brother, and often told his players that anyone who had a problem with the concept of homosexuality could not play for him. It was the same as any other kind of bias to the coach -- and in an era where he had to wait far longer than he should have for a head-coaching job because of his Italian heritage, Lombardi despised prejudice of any kind.
No NFL player has ever made his homosexuality public while playing in the league, but the sheer odds tell us that just about every professional football player in at least the last two generations has had at least one gay teammate through his career. The sheer odds also tell us that there will be a wide variety of views on the subject on any roster. Former New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan added his support to New York's same-sex-marriage legislation right about the time that former teammate David Tyree was telling an anti-homosexual publication that same-sex marriage would lead America to "anarchy."
"How can marriage be marriage for thousands of years and now all the sudden because a minority, an influential minority, has a push or agenda ... and totally reshapes something that was not founded in our country," Tyree said.
Strahan clearly disagreed. "I have plenty of gay friends, and I don't judge them. I want them to have all the same rights I have, and all the opportunities I have to be in a relationship, a great relationship, with the person that they're in love with."
So, maybe the picture isn't as rosy as OutSports paints it. Former running back Ahman Green, who has a gay sister and brother, isn't so sure about the acceptance of a player who admitted his homosexuality while still playing in the league.
"In our sport, to be honest, I think it would be hard for any guy to come out while he's playing," he said. "And that's not a happy thing to say. The gay community is just like everybody else, but they're treated differently. It's a double standard. If a guy was gay, he wouldn't come out while he was playing. He knows the possibility of the scrutiny he might face from the locker room, which would be unfair. I am very open-minded. It is what it is. People are born that way. You can't control it. Just like you're white, I'm black. But a lot of people don't think my way. I wish they did, because then there wouldn't be guys who wanted to stay hidden."
Perhaps the most encouraging part of the interview was the take of those players just coming into the league -- OutSports spoke with rookies Trent Richardson, Robert Griffin III, Doug Martin, Coby Fleener, Nick Foles, LaMichael James and T.J. Graham. To a man, the players who will comprise the future of the league didn't have a problem with the concept -- and many wondered why it was a big deal at all.
Richardson, the Alabama star who played his college ball in a state that struck down a same-sex marriage bill with 81 percent of the vote in 2006, said that he has gay friends and brought it back to the great equalizer -- how are you on the field?
"I never pay attention to it," Richardson said. "They do what they do. I don't have a problem with them. As long as they're playing good football and contributing to the team, I don't have nothing to do with that. It is what it is. I don't have any problem with any sexuality or whatever they've got going on."
Fleener, who played in and around a far more tolerant area of the country (Stanford), echoed Richardson's statements.
"As long as they competed on the field and gave it their all in practice, that's all I care about," Fleener said. "It's not something that's at the forefront of football. But especially at Stanford and in the Bay Area, it's something you deal with on a regular basis, more so than anywhere else in the United States. So I'm very comfortable with it, whereas in other areas it might not be the norm."
Griffin had a more personal experience -- he played with a high school teammate in Texas who came out and ultimately left the team as a result.
"When he came out, he stopped playing," Griffin said. "He might have stopped playing because of the negative feedback he might have gotten from being that on the football team. So, I think that's probably why he ended up quitting."
Perceptions are changing in the game over time -- perhaps it's that people expect football players to be homophobic by default? "I think because it's such a gladiatorial sport, when people think football they think testosterone and hitting and masculinity," Palmer said. "Whatever the reason, if there was someone who was homosexual in the locker room, that would be a very hard environment to come into because of the nature of the sport. But in my experiences, I really don't think we would have had that problem."
At some point in time, we'll all find out. Back to the sheer odds -- eventually, someone will come along and have the courage to take that stand. Then and only then will we know how the NFL really feels about true tolerance. For now, at least, the words spoken point us in an encouraging direction ... for the most part.