This week the Supreme Court took up important civil rights issue with the start of oral arguments in two separate cases, one over the constitutionality of California's Prop 8 and the other centered on the federal Defense of Marriage Act. A group of NFL players will also be part of the historic proceedings by way of an amicus brief filed in support of overturning the ban on same sex marriage.
NFLA president Domonique Foxworth and Cleveland Browns free agent linebacker Scott Fujita took to the national op-ed pages over the weekend -- Foxworth in USA Today and Fujita in the New York Times -- explaining their stance on the issue.
A couple thoughts on this:
First, damn, you simply cannot escape the NFL. Teams are a month away from the draft and more than four months away from training camp, but the NFL still finds its way into the national news cycle.
Second, and more to the point, it is precisely because of pro football's ubiquity that this group of players taking a stand is so important to tearing down this next hurdle in the ongoing struggle for civil rights.
This would have been, as Cyd Zeigler at OutSports said, "unthinkable" 12 months ago. It seems like the tide turned on issue of marriage equality quickly. Republican strategist Karl Rove went so far as to say he could imagine a GOP presidential candidate supporting gay marriage. It's amazing how quickly change happens once something has lost its value as an election year wedge issue.
Though the op-eds from Foxworth and Fujita were linked to the Supreme Court brief, they appear at a time when the NFL is facing its own questions about diversity and tolerance within its own insular community. A month ago an unnamed team crossed a poorly-defined line when officials asked Colorado tight end Nick Kasa about his sexuality. On Monday afternoon, CBS columnist Mike Freeman suggested that a closeted NFL player was weighing the decision to come out of the closet to his teammates and fans.
Roger Goodell and the NFL, forever cautious about offending the sensibility of a diverse audience, fumbled in handling the league's response to Kasa incident at the Combine. While the New York State attorney general's office threatened legal action, the NFL opted for reminding owners, general managers and coaches that such questions were inappropriate.
Goodell summed it up by telling the press:
"I hope that'll solve the problem."
The league is likely going to continue to sidestep the debate, even as the tolerance levels of coaches, players and fans are about to be revealed. The NFL's corporate leadership's desire to placate may not matter as players like Fujita and Foxworth push for acceptance.
Last week, Robert Wheel opined on the importance of players themselves opening up football minds in the locker rooms as well as the stands. Fujita and Foxworth aren't exactly the highest profile players, but they represent the most visible sports product in the country. When those two pen editorials for two of the nation's largest newspapers and attach their names to a Supreme Court brief, it signals pretty big shift in the national zeitgeist.
Both op-eds represented a larger foray into the issue of gay rights, even while focusing on the issue of marriage instead of acceptance in pro sports. Foxworth has used the national stage to make that case before, begging his fellow athletes to embrace diversity in a Huffington Post piece tied to the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday.
Tens of millions of Americans watch the NFL every week. Players' status as celebrities makes them intimately familiar to us, especially when you factor in pro football's endless media cycle. Acceptance spreads through familiarity. National figures that we're connected to can act like multipliers to that effect. Even former Ravens center Matt Birk, an opponent of gay marriage, made it clear in the wake of the Chris Culliver Super Bowl flap that he would have no problem accepting a gay teammate.
Whose responsibility is it to make the NFL itself a more tolerant place? Efforts to moderate behavior by Goodell are nothing new. The league has pushed for cultural changes ranging from bounties to injury reporting, part of the ongoing effort to make the game safer for players. I'm sure you see the irony here. Regardless, players can have a much greater impact than a social marketing campaign from 345 Park Ave. when they take the lead in changing the culture of the game, both in the locker room and among the fans.
Whatever the Supreme Court decides -- a majority of justices during oral arguments on Wednesday made it sound like the court is leaning toward a ruling in favor of gay rights -- attitudes towards tolerance have changed, even in the NFL. The first player to come out of the closet is still going to face some ugliness from fans and peers. The work by Fujita and the others is the first step toward smoothing that process.
With a little time, a gay player will be just like any other. Then, we can get back to evaluating them on the usual list of meaningless things like 40 times and cone drills.