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WHEEL ROUTES: What the NFL can do to support gay players

In this week's edition of Wheel Routes, Robert Wheel addresses gay players in the NFL, the Alex Smith trade, Combine results and more.

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The NFL is ready for a gay player, the problem is the rest of society

The gay community is waiting for its Jackie Robinson. But what if Robinson had had a choice to play baseball as a white person without going through all the tribunals of being a civil rights icon? What if he had the choice to simply be a baseball player?

That's the dilemma that the first outwardly gay professional athlete will face. They have to weigh the twin psychological tolls of staying in the closet and being a pioneer (and a target) against each other. The NFL has done a good job so far to lower the burden of being a pioneer, but there is more that they can do.

We saw that this week when the commissioner's office told teams that they could not ask players if they were gay in Combine interviews. It is, after all, prohibited by the CBA with the NFLPA. But the commissioner's office hasn't always held the CBA in the highest regard (just look at the Saints bounty scandal) so it was refreshing to see the league take a firm stance on the issue.

Non-Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Jason Whitlock suggested that the NFL hasn't done enough though, and that they should have suspended Chris Culliver for the Super Bowl.* But Culliver quickly apologized for his homophobic comments to Artie Lange. The NFL didn't need to suspend him, he'd already learned his lesson from the public outcry.

The NFL has done almost all that it can to make sure that the locker room and front office are safe for gay people. But if it wants to make sure that its gay players feel comfortable out of the closet they need to address homophobia in the stands and online. What the NFL (and NFLPA) to take its efforts at tolerance a step further is join the NHL's "You Can Play" project. The You Can Play movement does just that; it highlights to fans and young players that the NHL is a tolerant league and that gay athletes are welcomed.

The best way to address homophobic behavior is to make it socially unacceptable.

Of note, European soccer teams often fight racism in the stands by banning racist fans from games. But in America the First Amendment makes it difficult to proscribe speech in a public forum like a stadium that's been paid for with public funds or owned by a government entity, as most stadiums are. The best way to address homophobic behavior is to make it socially unacceptable.

But keep in mind that only nine years ago George W. Bush made homophobia a central part of his presidential campaign. We've come a long way, but there's still plenty of work to be done.

After the Alex Smith trade, the Niners look like the Patriots did last year

Tell me if this sounds familiar: the Super Bowl loser heads into the draft with a ton of picks and a thin defensive backfield. That was the case last year for the Patriots and it will be again this year for the Niners, especially after the Alex Smith trade.

Last year the Patriots drafted Tavon Wilson in the second round even though few people gave him a draft grade higher than the sixth round. The next defensive back taken? Casey Heyward, who finished third in defensive rookie of the year voting. Assuming the Niners don't address the position through free agency or trades, let's hope they do a better job.

The Combine was uneventful as always

Were you shocked that former tight end Lane Johnson was fast for an offensive tackle? Or that Manti Te'o doesn't have top end speed? Or that Marquise Goodwin has sprinter speed? Congratulations, person who doesn't pay attention to college football, you learned something at the Combine! Again, if you want to know about draft picks watch them play football. It's way more fun than watching them exercise.

Free agency is almost here

OH THANK GOD I ALMOST WATCHED SPRING TRAINING THE OTHER DAY. The new league year can't come soon enough, NFL. We're dying out here.

More in the NFL:

NFL Mock Draft: Post-Combine and trade edition

Trade rumors: Where's Darrelle Revis headed?

10 takeaways from the NFL Combine

The hardest thing to do in sports

NFL Combine's biggest winners and losers

The best (and we mean worst) quotes from the Combine