This spring, it seemed a surge in gay rights momentum was going to turn tides in the NFL and allow the league to accept an out gay player. Now, some executives think an out player won't exist in the NFL for another three to five years. This new, startling development comes from Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman, who reports the league was close to having multiple players come out last spring.
Rumors ran rampant at the time suggesting "a handful" of NFL players were ready to come out publicly. One gay-rights activist described the time to Freeman as the "the spring of optimism for the NFL and gay rights." As you probably noticed, nothing happened, and now, one league executive guesses, the NFL is probably three to five years away from accepting a gay player. The NFL falls drastically behind the NHL, and even the UFC, in its work accepting gay athletes, despite recent efforts to catch up. But attention given to NBA player Jason Collins (who remains unsigned) coming out on a Sports Illustrated cover, fears of being ostracized by fellow players, and teams getting cold feet before signing and accepting a gay player kept the league from making the leap into the 21st century.
Freeman reports now, with the benefit of hindsight, that, in truth, about two or three of active players were orchestrating announcements with different teams on different sides of the country without knowledge of each other. One player, allegedly an active free agent who remains unsigned today, had a deal in place with one NFL team to handle a coming out announcement in June, a month before training camp. That seemed like plenty of time for the press and league to digest the news, suffer some ugly backlash, and then go through the backlash to the backlash before players even run drills. Another player, a still-unsigned defensive back, nearly had a deal with an AFC team. But both fell apart at the last minute:
According to the team, the potential deal collapsed when the [free-agent defensive back] wanted too much money. If that was the case—and there is doubt about that among gay-rights advocates—it stands apart from everything else league insiders are saying about an NFL which they know includes many gay players and not a single one who will publicly acknowledge he's gay.
The first player, the one who expected to sign in June, heard in mid-to-late May from the interested team that it would no longer be signing him, officials from other teams told Bleacher Report. The player was told the reason why was fear of intense media coverage.
For the other players ready to come out, their deals and decisions to stay closeted came out of fear for what they could lose — their friends, their job and potentially the sport they love so much:
The answer was the same—fear. If they come out before signing, they won't get signed. While the players want to help push change, they also want to play football. Some will point to how Collins remains unemployed post-announcement.
Some point to the recent Miami Dolphins bullying scandal as a sign the league isn't ready for an out gay player. No one knows what it will take, exactly, for the biggest sports league to accept something the Supreme Court is already so over. The best guess, many think: a college prospect already out of the closet with undeniable talent. "Players, in general, don't care what other players do in the bedroom," Arizona kicker Jay Feely told Freeman. "No one cares. The only thing they care about is winning games (and getting paid). That's the honest truth." A hail mary might help.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.