We hear that a hurricane is coming, that we had better brace ourselves, so we buy out all the shelves at the grocery store and we board up our windows and we hunker down, prepared for the worst ... and then the storm comes and it's not nearly as devastating as expected. There is some wind and rain, but nothing we can't manage, because the really rough weather never materializes. Isn't that the way it often goes?
According to at least two reports, the forecast is that soon, perhaps in the next few months, an NFL player or group of players will publicly acknowledge their homosexuality, confirming what any logical person already knows—that some of the men we cheer for on Sundays are gay. Although no one in the NFL, NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball has ever come out during his playing career, it stands to reason that there would be roughly the same percentage of gay men among the NFL's 1,700 players as there are in the U.S. population—an estimated 2% to 4%. Nevertheless, the sense is that the first players to identify themselves will face a storm of homophobia. Former Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, one of the leading gay-rights activists in the league, indicated last week that four players were considering coming out simultaneously to diffuse the bigotry they expect to encounter. "Of course there would be backlash," he told The Baltimore Sun. "If they could share the backlash, it would be more positive."
But where would that backlash come from? From teammates in the locker room? If that's what you expect, maybe you haven't heard from enough players. For every Chris Culliver, the cornerback who said during Super Bowl week that he wouldn't want a gay player on the 49ers (and later apologized), there are many others—cornerback Antonio Cromartie, punter Chris Kluwe, running back Trent Richardson and linebackers Connor Barwin and Scott Fujita, to name a few—who have said they consider teammates' sexual preference irrelevant. But intolerance tends to generate bigger headlines than acceptance, so Culliver's words drew more attention than Giants defensive end Justin Tuck's that same week. "All we care about is having teammates who are going to help us win," Tuck said. "If we had a gay teammate who was going to do that, I don't have any problems with it."
It's not just potential teammates who have expressed their support. Openly gay players will have the full backing of the union, which has spoken out in favor of gay couples' freedom to marry in addition to saying it would support players regardless of sexual preference. Domonique Foxworth, the president of the NFL Players Association, wrote in a guest column for USA Today that the union believes in "standing up for anyone—in the game or not—who has been ridiculed, ostracized or rejected. We won't stand for that behavior in our locker rooms, on the playing field or in life. And that's why we hope that when the first openly gay NFL player steps forward, he will find not a wall of opposition, but a strong and caring defensive line. We'll have his back." It sounds more like players who try to make life difficult for gay teammates would be the ones to face a backlash.
Would it be fans, then, who would react negatively? All you have to do is read the vile comments on Internet message boards to understand the depth of the homophobia in some quarters. It's not hard to imagine people in the stands spewing antigay invective. But for good or ill, performance has a way of trumping everything else for most sports fans. If a receiver who's openly gay makes the tough catches over the middle, even homophobes are likely to care less about his lifestyle.
Beyond that, as a culture we are now accustomed to public figures coming out without it dramatically changing public perception of them. After Martina Navratilova, Ellen DeGeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, Anderson Cooper and others, it's no longer a groundbreaking occurrence. Just last week Magic Johnson's 20-year-old son, E.J., acknowledged publicly that he is gay, with his famous father fully in his corner. In another era that might have been a hot topic of conversation for weeks. Today the conversation ends almost as soon as the announcement is made.
This isn't to say that openly gay players in the NFL or other professional sports have nothing to fear. Gay slurs are still thrown around too easily, as we were reminded by the infamous video of fired Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice last week, and homosexual athletes at all levels still face bullying and other mistreatment. It would be an act of courage for a pro athlete to come out. But after all the anticipation, all the trepidation over what will happen when a player finally does, we might be pleasantly surprised by how anticlimactic the moment feels. After the first wave of media attention, as Barwin has said, "people will move on with football, the season and their life and realize it's not a big deal at all." The hurricane-level resistance we've been bracing for will have lost much of its force by the time it reaches shore.