There is a swirling frenzy in the media regarding gay athletes – particularly ones who may play in the NFL – that is a product of natural curiosity and competitive desire.
And it needs to stop. Or at least the situation needs to be handled with caution.
This is not a transaction that we, the media, are chasing. This is not the battle to be the first person to report the likely trade of Darrelle Revis or the signing of Mike Wallace. It is far bigger. We are talking about changing lives and perceptions. We're talking about dealing with fear on both sides, but mostly that of gay people who unfortunately believe they still have to hide.
It also has to be handled carefully by the teams these players work for and the NFL itself. Inevitably, this is an issue that will have to be dealt with internally and externally by a team as it hopefully supports the player and navigates the vocal minority of people who may object. In short, this is uncharted territory for everyone.
And the NFL doesn't always like to deal with uncharted.
"As you know, I'm about as liberal a person as it gets when it comes to how people live," Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said, balancing his personal beliefs with his public business. "You just want to know how you're going to deal with something."
Likewise, Arizona Cardinals GM Steve Keim said he was open to the idea of having a gay player on the roster, but he was certainly curious what the reaction might be.
"How are your players going to deal with it? What's the media reaction going to be?," Keim asked rhetorically. "You want to be prepared."
That's logical and understandable. The job of those who manage a football team is to extinguish distraction from the team goal and create focus for an entire group. Gay advocates like Cyd Zeigler of Outsports.com understand this.
"If I had a teammate who came out two days before the Super Bowl, I'd be upset," Zeigler said. "If he came out two weeks after the Super Bowl, I wouldn't care."
There's little doubt, though, that some news agency would love to break that kind of story at precisely that time. And that's where this all starts to get troublesome.
I understand this, to a small extent, on a personal level. One of the most influential women in my life died in December. She was 83, extraordinarily successful, supremely intelligent, tough and caring. She was also gay and unable to admit it to the world, although it was a secret to no one. When she talked to family members about writing her obituary, she couldn't bring herself to refer to her longtime partner because she was too ashamed.
I also get why gay people still experience fear because I have read the vile hate that some people still feel toward gays and lesbians. Last September, after writing about why I won't donate to Boy Scouts anymore even though my sons are scouts, I received hundreds of emails from people expressing a disturbing lack of tolerance toward gays and lesbians. Yeah, it's a small group, but their vitriol is palpable, often bolstered by their faith in a God they think has armed them with the right to judge.
But I digress.
The real point is that every time someone writes or says something about the possibility of a gay NFL player finally going public, the media stirs. Last Friday, when former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo said that four gay NFL players were close to coming out together, the phones started ringing.
Former Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, who along with Ayanbadejo supports marriage equality and gay causes, got a phone call from one news outlet. The reporter wanted to know Fujita's opinion about what Ayanbadejo was saying. The conversation quickly turned to the reporter's real objective"
Do you know who those four players could be?
"I figured out what they were really wanting pretty quickly," Fujita said with equal amounts of sarcasm and disappointment.
This is where the chase gets dangerous. Even though Ayanbadejo later backed off his claim, it was only after reporters who work with Bob Costas, CNN, ESPN and numerous other outlets had chased the tidbit. Zeigler eventually weighed in on the subject, casting doubt that there were ever four NFL players planning to come out and throwing a wet blanket on CBSSports.com writer Mike Freeman's assertion that an NFL player is "close" to coming out.
"Just wait for the headline that someone has come out; anything else is just a guess," said Zeigler, who admitted Friday that he's only reasonably sure of two gay NFL players.
Worse, Zeigler said, there is almost a witch-hunt element to what is going on. It's not necessarily intentional, but it's there nonetheless.
"I just hope that it doesn't get to the point that somebody feels pressured to come out because they feel that this news organization is about to out them," said Zeigler, who is 39 and came out when he was 23. "You don't want people to feel pressured into this."
But they are, as the media swirls around, hoping to get that next nugget of information, or better yet, that exclusive interview with the first guy to come out of the closet.
"I think it makes them [the media] hyper vigilant, that if there's anything out there, maybe a picture on Facebook, that someone can read as gay, you immediately get afraid," former NFL and NFL Europe player Wade Davis told Zeigler. Davis publicly revealed last June that he was gay. "I'd be deathly afraid that my cover's blown or maybe I didn't do a good enough job. It would make me really afraid. In some ways, the issue not being talked about made me feel safer because I never thought, 'Somebody might be wondering about me.' "
That's the sad part in all of this and the part that feeds all the fears for so many people. As uplifting as it would be for many people in the gay community to have an active NFL player come out – Zeigler talks about the concern about the disproportionately high suicide rate among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens and how having an NFL player might improve self-image for those young people – you can't get there without dealing with some individual fears first.
Those fears are not assuaged when people feel they are being chased by the media. There is a careful balance between trying to get the story and making people feel comfortable about telling their story. Yes, I would love to be the reporter who some NFL player (or players) decides to entrust with his story.
But just because people like Ayanbadejo, Fujita or even me think that the time is right for a gay NFL player to come out, well, what the hell do we really know about it?
"The problem is that you have straight people speaking on the behalf of these closeted gay athletes, instead of letting the gay athletes speak for themselves," Davis said.
Sadly, gay athletes aren't speaking out just yet. Not to the extent that some of us hope.
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