As the NFL playoffs kick off, the odds are good that at least a few of the pros fighting for a ticket to the big dance this weekend are gay. Don't believe us? Let's do the math: 4 percent of the U.S. population is gay
. There are 53 men on an NFL roster, and 32 teams in the league. That means, statistically speaking, there'd be roughly 68 gay men in the NFL, or a little over two per team.
We've found out about a few gay players
after they'd already retired, but to this point no currently active NFL player has been publicly out of the closet. We decided to take a look at what it might take to cause the first gay NFL player to come out (aside from being allegedly outed by someone else, as in the case of fullback Ovie Mughelli
), when it might happen, and what it could mean.
What It Might Take
Only three NFL players have come out of the closet -- David Kopay in 1975, Roy Simmons in 1992, and Esera Tuaolo in 2002 -- and they all did it after their playing days were behind them. Howard Bragman, a publicist who specializes in helping gay celebrities and athletes come out of the closet
(his former clients include Tuaolo and John Amaechi) tells
Asylum that he thinks one of two things would have to happen before we see a current player come out.
"Either it'll have to be someone who's caught in a situation where they have to decide if they want the news to hit the tabloids, or if they want to come out on their own terms," Bragman says, "Or it'll be someone who was out before their career started -- some college player who's so good, it doesn't matter."
Are those circumstances due to the locker room homophobia exemplified by the likes of Larry Johnson
? Kind of, explains Bragman: "I don't think a current player is going to come out and risk life and limb -- you can get killed out there, if some immature idiot takes a cheap shot -- without some sort of extenuating circumstances."
Furthermore, he says teammates might take it as a reason to be offended under other pretenses: "You'd hear guys complaining -- 'Oh, he wasn't honest with me!' -- but it's a workplace issue. They'd have the right to come out or not."
When It Might Happen
In 2000, Brian Sims was a defensive tackle for Division II NCAA school Bloomberg University, and a team captain. He was also openly gay, perhaps the first college football captain who was. While coming from a small school and being undersized for a tackle -- Sims was 6 feet tall, 240 lbs. -- he didn't have the opportunity to enter the NFL. He told us he thinks that the first out NFL player is playing right now, either at the high school or college level.
"It'll be someone in a skill position -- either a quarterback, a running back, a wide receiver, or maybe a middle linebacker. It'll be someone who's playing at a big-name school, and he'll be openly gay while he's in college," Sims tells Asylum. "There's probably not someone like that currently playing in the NCAA. I'd probably be the person who'd know
, and I'm not aware of anyone right now."
But time, Sims stresses, is definitely on the side of it happening sooner, rather than later. "The fact is," he says, "the NFL is comprised mostly of people under the age of 40, and people in that age group, statistically speaking, skew heavily progressive on gay rights issues. Something like 80 percent of young people are progressive there. But if you ask them how they think other
people in their age group feel, they only think that about a third of their peers share their belief."
A gay NFL star could help alter the second statistic quickly.
What It Might Mean
"When our coach wanted to motivate us," Sims says, "The thing he'd say to get us to focus on an opposing player was to tell us that, 'This guy's a racist. He said some racist stuff last week.' And we'd go out there looking to stop him." He expects the same thing would happen once the locker room rallied around their gay teammate: "A guy like Larry Johnson would be more of a target."
But would those teammates rally? Sterling Sharpe told HBO's "Real Sports"
that if Tuaolo had come out when they played together in Green Bay, "He would have been eaten alive and he would have been hated for it ... He'd have never gotten to the game on Sunday."
Interestingly, however, Sims references another Packers icon when rebutting Sharpe's point: "Vince Lombardi had an older brother who was gay, and he said that he felt that a gay player would have an incredibly strong sense of character. Anyone who had the courage to go through what an out gay player would have to would be an incredibly positive influence on his team."
Bragman agrees that teammates would be likely to back up the player: "I think they'd be shockingly supportive. Of course, other teams and players might not," he's quick to say. He also dismisses the talk of players being uncomfortable showering with a gay teammate. "There's nothing less sexual than an NFL locker room," he insists.
And ultimately, Sims believes that it would come down to a matter of leadership: "When Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, Leo Durocher
, the manager, stood up for him. The coach is the leader of the team, and players take their cue from him. If the coach says, 'I've recruited a player who's going to help us win,' that'll be important."
Finally, both Bragman and Sims agree that the impact of this first gay player, in terms of the way gay men are perceived, would be immeasurable. The player may become an icon, but Sims says, "How his team responds will further LGBT rights more than anything. The best part would be his teammates. You'd have 50 big athletes, people that kids look up to, saying, 'So what?' They'd have a bigger voice."
That leaves us with one final question: How would the fans react? What would you do if a player whose jersey you owned came out of the closet?