Gay athletes don't fit in what is perceived as a homophobic NFL

Nov. 2, 2009 at 5:02 a.m.

EDITORS: Note language graf 6 () —


By Randy Covitz

McClatchy Newspapers


Athletes have heard the ugly words on practice fields for most of their lives. They hear them in the streets and at neighborhood hangouts.

But when Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson used an anti gay slur on his Twitter account and in the locker room this week, he struck a nerve that makes professional sports leagues wince.

The NFL, like other pro sports leagues, is perceived as homophobic. Of the more than 20,000 athletes who have played in the NFL, less than a handful have identified themselves as gay_David Kopay was the first in 1975, followed by Roy Simmons and Esera Tuaolo — and only after their careers had ended.

Now the image-conscious NFL_which fines players for wearing droopy socks or the wrong-colored chin straps, is frightened by the prospect of Rush Limbaugh as an owner and enforces a rigid personal conduct policy_is confronted with how to deal with gay-bashing.

"It seems like every single season I'm getting phone calls about some athlete saying a gay slur, and using the word 'gay' and 'faggot' and 'homo' and 'queer' in such a negative term," Tuaolo said in a phone interview with The Kansas City Star from his home in suburban Minneapolis.

"There are gay athletes in the NFL and in baseball and in the NHL ... it's so crippling to someone who is going to work knowing there is no support in their organization. What is also crippling to an athlete is hearing slurs like that thrown around like it's just the thing to do. When you use the term 'gay' or 'faggot' or 'queer' and you use it in a negative term, it's the same as calling a woman a 'bitch.' Or the same as calling an African-American the n-word. It's demeaning to another human being. And it's not right."

The Chiefs have suspended Johnson two weeks for "detrimental conduct to the team" though the club did not specify whether the punishment was for the homophobic comments or for Johnson's criticisms of coach Todd Haley.

The NFL says it is investigating Johnson's comments, and whether it adds to Johnson's punishment could go a long way toward showing how serious it is in becoming more accepting toward gays.

But under the current climate that permeates the practice fields and locker rooms, it's still difficult for gay athletes to feel comfortable, further tarnishing the image it tries so hard to protect.

"Some of these athletes and some of these coaches and front-office people need to get with the times," said Tuaolo, a defensive lineman during 1991-99 with five teams. "We're coming to a time when nobody is going to tolerate any of this bull.

"It would be amazing if all these gay athletes would come out, and they would see how many athletes who are gay are premier players. But we live in a society that doesn't accept us for who we are. We live in a society that views the word 'gay' or gay person as weak."

Tuaolo, who was born in Hawaii and was a second-round draft choice by Green Bay after he played collegiately at Oregon State , said there are more than 10 homosexual players in the league today.

"I'm not going to tell you how many," he said. "The guys who are in contact with me . .. and there are others who are anonymous."

Because there are 1,696 players on the active rosters of the 32 teams, it is statistically probable that Tuaolo may be underestimating the number of gay NFL players.

"It is inconceivable that none of those 1,696 players are gay, particularly because we know there have been gay players in the NFL, gay players who have played in the Super Bowl," said Cyd Zeigler , co-founder of, a sports Web site geared to the gay community.

"They came out of the closet afterward. I know gay collegiate players. It's likely Larry Johnson has a teammate who is gay. It's not just people who play. It's people in the front offices ... and it's the fans. The Chiefs have gay fans. They have gay fans living in Kansas City, and it's not OK for Larry Johnson to say these things.

"Larry Johnson's use of the word 'faggot' wasn't targeted at gay people. He was demeaning gay people in trying to demean somebody else. It wasn't as bad as (former NBA player) Tim Hardaway's 'I hate gay people ...'"

Johnson's remark may have been more out of ignorance than malice, but that didn't excuse it, Tuaolo said.

"We live in times when you should already know that's not right to say," Tuaolo said. "He's an adult. I'm an adult. We live in a time knowing that calling a woman the b-word is not right. Calling somebody the n-word is not right within this culture."


Former Denver and Washington offensive lineman Mark Schlereth attributes such remarks to the "false bravado and machismo" that goes on behind closed doors in the locker room.

"I don't think it's intentional gay bashing," said Schelerth, an analyst for ESPN and father of a big-league pitcher. "That stuff has been around for so long, it becomes part of the common vernacular, locker-roomwide, and it's more out of ignorance than anything else. It doesn't excuse it, it's just the way it is."

Former Chiefs cornerback Jayice Pearson, who is bi racial_part Asian-American, part African-American_heard it all during his NFL career.

"The locker room is a different world, an environment of its own," said Pearson, an analyst for Chiefs pre season games and an ESPN college analyst who covered the NFL for Fox. "When I was playing, I heard probably every derogatory word you could think of for every class of people, every race ... not really was it taken seriously. Obviously, there were some things that were taboo, like a white guy saying the n-word ... that was not acceptable. But generally, everything else was fair game.

"If something was physically wrong with you, whether you had a lazy eye, or whatever ... you had to have thick skin in there. Did you have people trying to make fun of you or crack jokes about one ethnicity or the other, or your Asian side or your black side, or whatever? Of course.

"That happens. The same they would do with a 100 percent Asian guy or a 100 percent black guy or white guy or Mexican guy, the locker room was a different culture. You had (to be able to take it) and be able to give it back as well."

But if there were any gay players in the locker room, no one professed to know, especially because the gay athletes hid their sexual identities.

"I had to bite my tongue to hold back," Tuaolo said of occasions when he heard slurs in the locker room or on the field. "Every single day of my life waking up when I was in the closet, making sure no one would find out. You don't play up to your potential, you don't get a chance to really feel free ..."

Tony Dungy, who was the defensive coordinator in Minnesota when Tuaolo played for the Vikings, said the coaching staff didn't suspect anything.

"It's not something you're going to know," Dungy said of gay athletes in the NFL. "It hasn't been accepted. It's a hard thing. It was not something that was talked about in the locker room when I was at Minnesota.

"Esera was a player, he played, he did his job, he had a lot of friends on the team, and as a coach, I never heard it mentioned. I was surprised when it came out. How do you know?"

The NFL actually has taken some steps to combat homophobia. It offers same-sex domestic partner benefits for employees_which was supported by former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, whose son is a gay-rights advocate_and the league introduced gay sensitivity training at the rookie symposium

"As an institution, the NFL is a meritocracy that places a high priority on tolerance and diversity," said Greg Aiello, the league's senior vice president for public relations. "In the NFL, it's not a matter of who you are, where you come from, or your lifestyle. It's a matter of job performance. And on that basis, an individual's sexual orientation is entirely irrelevant."

When asked whether the NFL has a stance on players making insensitive remarks about gays or any other groups, Aiello said: "Everyone in the NFL is required to avoid conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the NFL."

Yet when former Detroit Lions general manager Matt Millen addressed then-Chiefs wide receiver Johnnie Morton by calling him "a faggot" after a 2003 game in Kansas City, he was not believed to be fined or suspended, though he issued a formal apology. Also in 2003, then-New York Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey was quoted as calling then-Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells "a homo." Shockey said he was misquoted but apologized and was not fined.

"There isn't a road map for this," said Bob Leffler , president of the Baltimore-based The Leffler Agency , the largest sports-advertising company in the country and former sales and marketing director of the Baltimore Colts. "It's different from other fines like leading with your helmet.

"It's a freedom of speech issue. For whatever reason people are more truthful with their tweets and Facebook. ... When you have extreme masculinity situations like football, people who have a hangup about (homosexuality) are more intimidated by it. But there's no place for a homophobe."

Tuaolo, who spends time now as a recording artist and speaker on college campuses and to Fortune 500 companies on gay-rights issues, isn't sure whether gay players will ever be accepted in the NFL.

"My big issue is I deal with kids across the country who are athletes, and who are not athletes, who tell their parents they are gay and have been thrown out in the streets," Tuaolo said, "or athletes are afraid to come out because it's not a safe place for them to come out in.

"These athletes need to know there are gay kids, athletes and non athletes who look up to them as role models, also. Why not be a well-rounded role model for all the kids? When you say something like that ... who wants to pursue football? It scares them. They don't want to take the next step."

Dungy has been a ground-breaker throughout his career, when he played quarterback in college at a time when black players were not given many opportunities at the position, and he interviewed dozens of times for head-coaching jobs before he took Tampa Bay to the NFC championship game in 1999 and became the first black coach to win the Super Bowl with Indianapolis in 2006.

When asked whether he ever sees the day when gay players can come out of the closet without repercussions, Dungy gave it some thought.

"That's an interesting question," he said. "No matter what it is, you should be judged on your ability to play the game or coach the game. That's the ideal. When it will happen, I'll never know."


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