NFL Coach Blames Fans for Lack of Openly Gay Players

This article is part of a DiversityInc series: “What the #$@! is Wrong With Sports” CLICK HERE for more of this special series.


By Chris Hoenig

Gay NFL players would be accepted in the locker room and by the league, but they won’t come out because they’re scared of the reaction from fans. Or at least that’s what one team’s head coach says.

Bruce Arians, the new Head Coach of the Arizona Cardinals, told FoxSports.com that teams would be more than inviting if and when a gay football player comes out. “The problem would be with the fansI think especially opposing fans,” Arians said. “Some of the things that are said are over the top and out of control that I can imagine what some fans would say to an openly gay player.”

Arians’ assertions are the opposite of the concerns raised by former Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets Assistant Coach Doug Plank back in April. “You get inside an NFL locker room, I tell you what, it’s something else. It’s a jungle in there,” Plank said. “We’ve certainly seen so much more acceptance [outside the locker room]. It’s almost normal now. It’s not a big issue. But there are still those last bastions that are left, and sports is one of them. You get into a locker room with these types of individuals that are very, very driven and very physical, and I think it’s still an issue.”

Just before the Super Bowl, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver said he would not welcome a gay player in his locker room. “We don’t have any gay guys on the team. They gotta get up outta here if they do. Can’t be with that sweet stuff,” he said on a radio show. “Come out 10 years later after that.” Of course, these words also come from a player who uses social media to publicly share his text messages referring to women as “bitch” and “hoes.”

NFL’s Lack of Response

Leadership starts at the top, in this case with the league’s executive officers, including Commissioner Roger Goodell. So what kind of leadership is the league providing A look back at recent situations, like Culliver’s and Arians’ comments, show the NFL’s lack of leadership when it comes to creating an inclusive atmosphere that would make a gay player comfortable in coming out.

DiversityInc contacted the league since it had not publicly responded to Arians’ comments, and we were referred to an April memo sent to players that repeatedly states that discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or sexual orientation is strictly prohibited. The consequences of violating these guidelines are never once stated in the memo, however.

The league has also never released a formal statement regarding Culliver’s comments, and when DiversityInc asked NFL Vice President of Communications Brian McCarthy about it, he said that Culliver’s comments were personal and had been addressed by both the player and the team. But have they really Culliver issued a half-hearted apology the next day that read: “The derogatory comments I made yesterday were a reflection of thoughts in my head, but they are not how I feel. It has taken me seeing them in print to realize that they are hurtful and ugly. Those discriminating feelings are truly not in my heart. Further, I apologize to those who I have hurt and offended, and I pledge to learn and grow from this experience.”

The 49ers’ response is even more head-scratching. Despite suspending another player on the team for publicly complaining about playing time, San Francisco did not discipline Culliver. Instead, the 49ers released a statement: “The San Francisco 49ers reject the comments that were made yesterday, and have addressed the matter with Chris. There is no place for discrimination within our organization at any level. We have and always will proudly support the LGBT community.”

The message from the team: Bash the club and you will sit; bash the LGBT community (including your closeted teammates) and nothing will happen. The message from the NFL: Yeah, whatever the 49ers said.

DiversityInc also asked the NFL about its response to a Maryland state legislator who sent a letter to the Baltimore Ravens owner in an attempt to pressure the team into silencing outspoken LGBT-rights activist/player Brendon Ayanbadejo. Again, McCarthy told DiversityInc that the team had handled the issue and was very supportive of Ayanbadejo.

While the team claims to have privately responded to the letter from State Representative Emmett Burns, its only public response was a single line from President Dick Cass: “We support Brendon’s right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment.” The most public support Ayanbadejo found in the league was from another player, Oakland Raiders punter Chris Kluwe, who published a VERY strongly worded response to Representative Burns (so strongly worded that we are not linking to it, though you are more than welcome to look it up). Whether for football reasons or not, Ayanbadejo was released by the Ravens at the end of last season.

So, once again, the message from the NFL is that responding to antigay sentiment in the locker room and supporting players who advocate for LGBT rights is a team’s job, not the league’s.

How Leaders Really Lead

Support for gay and lesbian employees can be found throughout the DiversityInc Top 50. Companies in the DiversityInc Top 50 averaged nearly a 97 on the Human Rights Campaign’s 2013 Corporate Equality Index, with twice the percentage receiving perfect 100 scores as Fortune 500 companies.

READ: The DiversityInc Top 10 Companies for LGBT Employees

Corporate America has led the battle for equality, and LGBT leadership comes straight from the executives at these companies. Tom Voss, President, CEO and Chairman of Ameren (one of the DiversityInc Top 7 Regional Utilities), has fought for the gay and lesbian members of the company’s staff since taking over. “We had a long way to go. We had areas in our company that had absolutely no diversity. We had people who weren’t hearing or seeing people who were different than them,” Voss said in an interview with DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti. “Eight years ago, I recognized this and said this is important for our future success. We had to make that investment.”

Another example of top-level leadership comes from the government: Retired Admiral Mike Mullen led the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the U.S. military as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti, a former Naval aviator and member of the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel, spoke with Mullen multiple times during the process. In a DiversityInc interview, Mullen stressed that understanding is a key to managing diversity. “I grew up on the deck plate. I grew up in the bowels of a ship. I grew up with the troops,” he said. “As a leader, I needed to understand what made them tick, and I tried to carry that with me through to this day. The separation that I now have is much more significant, just in terms of seniority, but the issue and the understanding is just as vital now as it was then.”

WATCH: DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti Discusses Diversity With Admiral Mike Mullen

At the corporate level, EY (No. 4) is among the companies to offer a tax-equalization benefit, which reimburses LGBT employees for additional taxes paid on same-gender-domestic-partner medical benefits. Wells Fargo (No. 25) offers monthly financial-advice columns on DiversityInc.com for LGBT households. In Indiana, Cummins (No. 15) and Eli Lilly and Company (No. 35) have fought to prevent bans on same-gender marriage in the state. jcpenney (No. 50) responded to boycott threats over its support of same-gender marriage and LGBT employees by including same-gender couples in its catalogues.

Now to get these lessons of leadership to the NFL …

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