Tackling Tolerance: The NFL and Homosexuality

By Hayley Grunebaum on December 11, 2013

This spring, the sports arena buzzed with rumors about one, or several NFL football players who were planning to come out publicly. The National Football League was on the cusp of exciting, radical change. This would be an event in history as monumental as Jackie Robinson’s admission into Major League Baseball. But then, nothing happened. Fervent talk was followed by a lack of action. And now, we are still waiting.

According to sports writer Mike Freeman, two players had found NFL teams that were comfortable with their plans to reveal their homosexuality after signing with each program. The coaches and players were reportedly all in and everything was falling into place. Unfortunately, both teams rescinded their offers and these players were not signed into the NFL. Freeman asserts that one of the teams told the first player that the arrangement did not pan out because the player had asked for too much money. Yet, the player himself felt that the team and higher management feared the intense media coverage that his announcement would unleash. Ultimately, the team lost its nerve.

On Tuesday, the You Can Play Project, an advocacy organization that supports equality in sports for LGBT athletes, launched a project with the NFL called the “High Five Initiative,” in the hopes of uniting LGBT youth who have experienced bullying and discrimination with players in the league. The initiative intends to help these children see that they have people rooting for them. The program also plans to indirectly help create a more accepting and understanding environment within the NFL through exposing athletes to these children. While the goals of the initiative are commendable, it is difficult to send a message of acceptance from the NFL to LGBT children when there is still not one openly gay player in the league.

Although there are a projected 30 to 40 (and probably more) privately gay players in the NFL currently, none wish to come out. This is due to an overwhelming—and realistic—fear that if they do so, the players will not be re-signed for a following season when their contracts expire. We all remember this spring when active NBA player Jason Collins affirmed that he was gay in an interview with Sports Illustrated. At the time, the media referred to this occurrence as “game-changing.” Many believed Collins broke a barrier in the entire sports community with his statement and he was endorsed by national figures such as Bill Clinton and LeBron James.

Now, however, Collins is not playing for the NBA. In the end, not one of the 30 NBA teams called to offer him a place. Some specialists argue that it was Collin’s skill level that prevented him from being recruited. Yet, it seems as though players who were offered spots have proven less skilled than Collins. Others contend that most NBA teams were uninterested in the drama that would surely ensue after including Collins on their rosters. If the latter is true, it is truly a shame. Rather than turn Collins into a global figure for acceptance, equality, and real sportsmanship, the NBA seemingly turned its back on the former player and missed out on a decisive opportunity for progress.

It is no question that homophobic sentiments still rein within the football arena, yet many players have voiced that they would be accepting of an openly gay player. This August in an interview with GQ Magazine, Redskin’s quarterback Robert Griffin III articulated, “I think there are [gay players] right now, and if they’re looking for a window to just come out, I mean, now is the window.” Griffin himself is a religious Christian yet he explained that his ideology would not affect this issue.

League officials, however, may not share Griffin’s sentiment that now is the opportune moment for a gay NFL player to emerge. NFL executives have posited that the NFL may be three-to-five years away from accepting a gay player even though they currently stand behind the aim.

The question then becomes, WHY? Why should we wait five years for change when the gay rights movement is in full swing right now? What will happen in five years that will make it easier for a football player to openly reveal his sexuality? The answer is, nothing. The reality is, coming out in an atmosphere as traditional as the NFL will always be a terrifying, difficult, and simultaneously liberating endeavor. It will cause an inevitable flurry of media attention—good and bad. Painful homophobic comments will be made and some people will never get on board.  The act of coming out will remain a great challenge for gay football athletes until one player does not wait for change, but demands it. It will take one player who demonstrates overwhelming courage and gathers a sizeable, unbreakable following to initiate a movement towards true acceptance in the NFL community.


Hayley is a senior at the University of Michigan, majoring in English and Psychology. This summer, she interned at a start-up media company called Bedrocket, as well as The Center for Health, Identity, Behavior, and Prevention Studies at NYU where she worked with young adolescent gay males with and without HIV. Hayley loves creative writing, poetry, and people. She can only chew two pieces of gum at once, even if each individual piece is huge (can't break the habit), and has a weird obsession with John Mayer, despite his reputation as a womanizer. She is so excited to be a part of the Uloop team.

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