Can the NFL Catch Up on Gay Rights in Time for 'More Than a Handful' of Players to Come Out?

The NHL threw down the gauntlet Thursday, announcing that it wants to become the "most inclusive professional sports league," which is something of a test to the NFL, whose officials are scrambling a prevent defense for the homophobia they're anticipating as more players prepare to come out.

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The National Hockey League threw down the gauntlet Thursday, announcing that it wants to become the "most inclusive professional sports league" through a partnership that commissioner Gary Bettman said would "reaffirm... that the official policy of the NHL is one of inclusion on the ice, in our locker rooms and in the stands." Which is something of a test to the National Football League, whose officials are scrambling to design a kind of prevent defense for the homophobia they're anticipating as more and more of its players appear ready to publicly announce that they're gay — maybe not all at the same time, but hopefully with enough of a support system that proves the NFL isn't the least inclusive of the leagues. Here's how the NFL and the NFL stack up right now:

The Partnerships

(Photo by Frank Polich/Reuters)

The NHL and its players association took the big step Thursday of teaming with the You Can Play project, an advocacy group that defined the deal as "a significant commitment to education and training for teams, players, media and fans plus the production and broadcast of more public service announcements. The NHL becomes the first major American professional sports league to officially partner with an LGBT advocacy group on this scale."

Indeed, according to the New York Times analysis on the deal, by the paper's chief hockey reporter Jeff Z. Klein and well sourced football reporter Judy Battista, the NFL "has had internal conversations about how to prepare for the moment when one of its players publicly discusses his homosexuality." This deal, however, is a big official step beyond off-the-record whispers. They add:

Other major leagues — the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball — have policies that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and various officials have spoken in support of gay athletes. But no league seems to have taken such a strong public stance on the issue.

And while NFL officials may be having those internal conversations and may officially have an anti-discrimination policy, NFL general managers are still having conversations about whether Manti Te'o and at least one other rookie are gay — conversations the NFL is looking into, just not all that impressively. Robert Gulliver, the NFL figurehead for that investigation, tells the Times that the league is "in active discussions with LGBT partners."

Edge: NHL, because talk is cheap.

The Management

One of the biggest stories in hockey over the past year has been the death of Brendan Burke, the openly gay son of former Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke. It turned one of the most powerful men in the NHL into an all-out gay rights advocate. According to the Toronto Star, the elder Burke "participated in Pride parades, first alongside Brendan, then — following a fatal car crash in Indiana in February 2010, just months after he came out publicly — in honour of him." Burke was fired shortly thereafter — for performance, not his stance on gay marriage and gay rights in sports — but he continues his advocacy.

As for the NFL, well, at least it's got the owners: New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch signed a brief filed in support of marriage equality to the Supreme Court last month, and the Times team wrote Thursday that New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft "said he thought the N.F.L. was ready for a gay player who chose to come out." But the GMs are the guys who make the personnel decisions, and those Te'o rumors — that officials "want to know" about player sexuality — surfaced at the NFL rookie scouting combine. At a different point in the recruitment process, after rookies get drafted and are getting trained at a first-year symposium, leagues have their first chance at a kind of freshman orientation — not just for media and sneaker deals, but for social conscience. And Gulliver, the NFL HR exec, tells the Times that at least the league is aware of that opportunity: "We do want to sensitize incoming rookies as to how important it is to pay attention to LGBT issues, so people have an appreciation for some of the sensitive LGBT issues that are very topical right now in the league," he said.

But the NHL, in its new partnership, is actually doing that: "You Can Play will conduct seminars at the NHL’s rookie symposium to educate young prospects on LGBT issues," reads Thursday's release.

Edge: NHL, because appreciation isn't action.

The Players

There is now a whole cadre of activist players in the NFL, and not just the usual suspects like Baltimore's Brendan Ayanbadejo, free agent Scott Fujita, and Vikings punter Chris Kluwe. The newest player pledging to make the NFL a better place for gay men is controversial wide receiver Donté Stallworth, the former teammate of recently gay-locker-room-friendly star Rob Gronkowski who was suspended for an entire season after killing someone in a car accident. He became an unlikely ally in the fight this week when he joined Athlete Ally,which The Grio describes as a "a non-profit organization aimed at educating and encouraging individual athletes to respect every member of their communities, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity." And a myriad of players signed that marriage equality brief before oral arguments at the Supreme Court last month.

The NHL has been receptive, too, not just to gay marriage but especially about the prospect of out gay players in the locker room. "There's homophobic feelings that's still out there for people in the world, and in the sports world, and it's a shame, but that's the world. There's a lot of bad things going on in the world and that's just how it is. But you can bring awareness to it and this is a good thing, this is what's right," said Rangers forward Brian Boyle, who identifies as Catholic. And Patrick Burke, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, is quoted as saying in the Times:

If he wants to do a thousand interviews and march in pride parades, we’re equipped to handle that. And if he wants us to pass-block for him so he never has to do another interview in his life, we’re equipped to handle that, too.”

That's a lot better than scouts asking NFL prospects if they were gay, and the NFL seems ready in the locker room, right now. Even Kluwe, the most brazenly outspoken of gay rights advocates in football, admitted in an interview this week with Sports Illustrated that the NFL is still in the hoping phase, not the action phase:

I can see it where guys worry about it being a distraction. If it takes away from your on-field performance, you could end up getting cut. But at the same time, hopefully one day we get to a point where it’s not a big deal when someone speaks out for doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.

Edge: NFL, because at least they're talking.

The Ignorant Players

There is no doubt that the NFL is more visible than any other sport in the U.S. thanks to the Super Bowl. And on that biggest stage, a few of the San Francisco 49ers dropped the ball. Two of the team's stars adamantly denied that they were part of a gay advocacy video (even though they were part of the now pulled clip for the "It Gets Better" campaign), and the team's backup cornerback, Chris Culliver, notoriously said that "I don't do the gay guys, man," adding that "we don't need no gay people on the team" and that gay players "can't be... in the locker room."

Wade Davis, a former NFL player who sits on You Can Play's board and is now openly gay, told the Times that NFL players' deep ties to religion may also prove to be a stumbling block in locker-room acceptance:

“The players are the ones who are going to have to interact with this first out gay athlete,” Davis said. “Instead of pushing anything on them, let’s have an honest conversation. Even if somebody has a different opinion, their opinion is valid. One great thing about sports culture is the locker room is a PC-free zone. So players will say anything with the understanding they are family. That’s where you have to start from.”

Edge: NHL, because the NFL still wants to be PC-free.

The Players Who Aren't Out

This is sort of the one that matters, since all this talk about which league "is the most inclusive" is moot if there's no one who's willing to come out and be included. While there's tons of talk from the NHL about how they're going to make things really easy for its first gay player, there's still no telling how many players might be thinking about coming out—or if there even are any.

The NFL has a different problem. Ayanbadejo (pictured at top), who was cut by the Ravens last week, started a rumor that there were three or four players thinking about coming out at the same time. He then walked back his comments in an interview with Anderson Cooper last Friday, admitting only that "potentially it's possible, it's fathomable, that they could possibly do something together, break a story together." In a new interview with the Times published today, Ayanbadejo clarifies the state of the coming out party once more:

Ayanbadejo said that after his comments last week, "a couple of more players" had called Athlete Ally, the organization that supports gay athletes with which he is most closely affiliated, seeking guidance and connection. He said there is "more than a handful now" of gay players of whom he is aware.

It’s going to be on their times, their terms.

Edge: NFL, because they're going to have to be the first to figure this out. And maybe they will.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.