NFL Disconnect: Conflicting Public, Private Reactions to Gay Player

 NFL prospect Michael Sam earned praise from the First Lady of the United States, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith for revealing his homosexuality. But as the All-American defensive end predicted to ESPN, “There will be negativity, negative reactions.”

Amid a flurry of demonstrative support from players, NFL officials, and others who may not know football from foosball, a small number of gridiron athletes have come out of the closet as opponents of introducing homosexuality into the locker room. Predictably, there has been “negativity, negative reactions” toward these dissenting voices.

“Let me break it down for everyone,” former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Crayton explained to his Twitter followers. “A lot of people are mad because I said there goes the NFL. I say that because now this young man is to get all the wrong attention for his sexual choice and a lot of players and execs will get asked about playing with a gay guy and they are going to have to lie about how they really feel.”

The final part of Crayton’s analysis finds affirmation in Richie Incognito’s expression of support on Twitter for Michael Sam: “#respect bro. It takes guts to do what you did. I wish u nothing but the best.” But in the reinstated Miami Dolphins guard’s recently-revealed texts to teammate Jonathan Martin, the accused bully regularly associated behavior he disliked with slang terms for homosexuals. When Martin failed to show up for a night of drinking, Incognito responded: “that’s the gayest s#!+ I’ve ever heard of. U really are a faggot.” Regarding a controversial trip to Las Vegas that Martin ultimately didn't join, he warned the second-year player: “no dude hookers u faggot.”

Does the support for Michael Sam from Incognito and other NFL players express their honest opinions, or does it express their honest opinions of what the public, their employers, and the journalists who cover them want their opinions to express? As the Incognito-Martin controversy taught, NFL players talk and behave very differently in public than they do in private. Given that the vast majority of publicized opinions from players and executives on Michael Sam clashes with what anonymous sources have told Sports Illustrated, a disconnect may emerge between what beliefs players and executives attach their names to and what beliefs they attach their private actions to.

Anonymously, several coaches, executives, and talent evaluators have candidly questioned the wisdom of the announcement’s timing. Concerns include Sam hurting his draft stock, his combine performance through nerves, or the team that ultimately drafts him by unintentionally forcing a media-circus distraction upon it. “I don’t think football is ready,” one player personnel assistant told Sports Illustrated, citing the popularity of gay insults in the locker-room vernacular. An assistant coach dubbed it “not a smart move.” Former Jets and Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards likened Sam on ESPN to a “player with off the field issues” who is “bringing baggage into your locker room.” 

Despite analysis focusing on what will happen rather than what should happen, various sports and news sites were quick to condemn it as fueled by bigotry or insanity. Deadspin’s article on Edwards’s assessment carried accusations that the former coach spoke while drunk and elicited reader comments alleging that his words stemmed from football-induced chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Salon.com judged the anonymous NFL executives who thought that Sam’s announcement harmed his draft stock or would divide a locker room guilty of “cynical homophobia.” Ultimately, treatment of Sam by NFL players, coaches, and executives will not occur under the watchful eye of Salon.com but under the same cloak of privacy that shielded the candid NFL executives and coaches from the wrath of those emotionally invested in the idea of an openly-gay NFL athlete.

One NFL great’s nuanced reaction to Michael Sam revealing his attraction to men has already divided the Twitterverse, provoking criticism from both from those who reject and embrace homosexuality. Deion Sanders followed up several messages of support for Sam (“Let’s show him love like a family member”) with one alluding to his opposition to homosexuality. “God hates the Sin but loves the Sinner,” the Hall of Fame cornerback tweeted. “Let’s stop judging others and understand we all sin. Your sin ain’t my sin but we all sin. Truth.”


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