There are outliers. There are players who make a big righteous deal out of how much they disapprove of homosexuality or anyone who "chooses" the lifestyle on one side, and there are actual active advocates for equality of the Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe variety on the other. But, for the most part, there is a new stock answer to the persistent question of how pro athletes would react to a gay teammate. It's a qualified "whatever," and it goes something like, "as long as he can play, I don't care what [Notional Gay Teammate] does off the field."
It's not quite an inspiring expression of solidarity and brotherhood, although anyone seeking that sort of thing probably shouldn't be looking for it in a locker room interview with a shirtless linebacker. There's some evidence of progress and reason for optimism even in that chewed-over bit of boilerplated sentiment, though, mostly because it's so easy to imagine it being true. Being in the NFL seems difficult enough that it's hard to imagine anyone in the violent churn of it having a spare moment to be offended by the thought of the H-back falling in love with a man. If this new normal of laissez-faire not-caring isn't the most bracing and proud expression of tolerance imaginable, it's still tolerance.
The question of how or whether a gay player would fit on a NFL team has been answered, anyway. In the case of former 49ers offensive tackle Kwame Harris, for instance, the answer was that he fit in more or less fine despite not going to great lengths to conceal that he was gay, until he stopped performing at a high level ... at which point he got a big contract from the Raiders (because of course) and fell out of the league.
Harris was not publicly out as a gay man until after he retired and understandably struggled with the awful emotional constriction of the closet. But there's a way to read his story so it looks somewhat like progress, too. Look at it right and Harris' career is a testament to pragmatism trumping old idiocies, and the basic fact that he could play his position better than other people outweighed whatever biases might've colored how decision-makers regarded the person he was.
It would be nice to live in a world in which who a person loves doesn't matter at all, but most of us would settle for one in which it matters less than what a person can do. The NFL sells just this sort of tough-minded, unsentimental meritocracy where its players are concerned -- the beefy It's A Man's Game In The National Football League rhetoric and all those individual coach-constructed Pyramids Of Winning and so on. The foxhole pragmatism above should, by all rights, apply here, too: there are simply too few NFL-quality football players out there for teams to turn up their noses at a valuable one. This is less inspiring when it earns second and third chances for your Leonard Little types. But the principle, although that's probably not the word for it, is the same.
Then there's veteran safety Kerry Rhodes who was, as recently as last season, one of the better players in the NFL at his position. The man was scurrilously semi-outed by the sub-TMZ gossip suckhole Media Take Out during the offseason, and now -- at the age of 31, and coming off a very effective season -- is not employed by an NFL team and not getting any offers, either. There are a great many NFL teams that could use help in their defensive secondary, but not one has so much as thought to call Rhodes -- who has, let's note, strenuously denied being gay -- in for so much as a workout.
"This is a league that pays endless lip service to the idea that the best players play, regardless of skin color, politics, religion, whatever," Drew Magary writes at Deadspin, with maybe even more outrage than usual. "If Rhodes's sexuality is a nonissue for teams, then what else is wrong with him?"
It's not a rhetorical question, although the answer is plain enough. That answer is ugly enough to coax an on-the-record suggestion from professional Shield-polisher Mike Florio, who told Magary, albeit in his trademark ultra-qualified passive-constructo way, that Rhodes may indeed be being "blackballed."
Put aside the idea of Magary and Florio emailing each other -- which, yes, is sort of the buried lede in this whole thing -- and you've got something egregious enough to put two NFL commentators who occupy exactly opposite personality poles on something like the same page. Where Florio, with his usual dim crypto-expertise, might coolly explain that Rhodes could be considered "a distraction," Magary unpacks that deceptively banal formulation.
"Sportswriters love to talk about 'distractions,'" Magary writes, "because the term is value-neutral and lets them pretend that media fusses are naturally occurring external phenomena," when of course it's just another way of avoiding saying something no one quite wants to say,and evidence of something NFL fans would rather not believe.
The NFL, like any other industry, is free to tout its own robust and unsparing dedication to merit. It sounds good, even if there's no reason to believe that a league that has rolled out various lemon-grade models of Shula and Kiffin and Shurmur for decades has any real aversion to nepotism or narrow-minded convention. Still, it's easier to believe that the people tasked with building an effective football team would -- if only because of how difficult it is to build an effective football team -- be as pragmatic as advertised, not because it would be cowardly to be otherwise, but because it would be self-defeating. If the NFL is as rigorously tough and tough-minded as it keeps telling us it is, that toughness could manifest through some bold, opportunistic tolerance instead of the usual Goodell-ian zero-tolerance.
The NFL has an official anti-discrimination policy on sexual orientation, which it pointed to righteously when it came out that various front office steakbrains had asked players about their sexual orientation during pre-draft workouts. What appears to be happening with Rhodes seems too unofficial for that laudable policy -- which is unlikely ever to be applied, if we're being honest -- to apply. But the NFL doesn't need to live up to its bylaws in this matter, although of course it should.
It needs only to live up to its own proud rhetoric -- that toughness is the thing, that excuses are less valuable than solutions, that winning matters most. Without actual conviction, all that rhetoric is so much puffy pomp, some goonery to throw a thrill up the leg of dads on couches. There's more than one type of toughness, and there seems a serious shortage of the doing-what's-right kind here. Media Take Out's leering, dunderheaded headline on its (since-deleted) Super World Exclusive report featuring photos of Rhodes kissing another man on the head was "This Ish Here Is Looking SUSPECT." It still works.