Invisible Men: The Year An NFL Player Didn't Come Out
Professional football's closet door isn't just closed; it's locked.
This is how a gay NFL player doesn't come out. There are five steps. First, football establishes itself as the last bastion of purebred American masculinity. Jason Collins, Tom Daley, Britney Griner, Thomas Hitzlsperger, Robbie Rogers. However significant their announcements and personal journeys as out athletes, it's just not the same. They are not NFL players; they are not warriors.
Second is the idea of "distraction." That's the word that surfaces whenever the prospect of an out player is raised. "I'm not against anyone," Chris Clemons tweeted last March when a fan pressed him for his thoughts about players coming out. "But I think it's a selfish act. They [are] just trying to make themselves bigger than the team." This notion was borrowed from the fight against LGBT people in the military, a parallel that — hardly a stretch — becomes even more striking.
"I don't want to lose any Marines to the distractions," General James Amos told reporters in 2010 following his congressional testimony against the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The idea that soldiers living, fighting, and yes, showering, in close quarters would somehow be distracting to the point of total dysfunction by the mere existence of openly gay peers is back again, this time wearing cleats instead of combat-ready boots. When asked about a player coming out, Chad Johnson — arguably once one of the most distracting players in the league — told BuzzFeed, "The locker room would be in shambles. Why? Because no one would even function in that environment."
"I'm invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me," declares the protagonist of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, later adding: "When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me." Just as the NFL now risks being defined by its resistance to out players in contrast to most other sports leagues, the Marines were one of the last holdouts against the repeal.
"We recruit on a warrior ethos," added Amos. "We live hard, we train hard. We do tough things." His language would work quite well in a Super Bowl promo. Every week that football is on during network television prime time, it is the most-watched program of the week. The Super Bowl easily tops 100 million viewers each year.
Third comes the money. Drew Brees, arguably the highest paid player in the league, had a salary of $40 million and endorsements worth $11 million in 2013. The average salary for a quarterback is $3,840,017. The least profitable position in the NFL, tight end, averages $1,420,890 a year. With money like that, and an average career length of three and a half years, NFL players can't afford to get distracted — a possible injury awaits every lapse in focus — or worse, be called a distraction.
As LGBT advocates and now former players Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo can attest, there is no job security in the NFL. In this matrix, driven by a cultural premium on masculinity and buttressed with millions and millions of dollars, the players themselves are replaceable. There will always be more warriors.
The fourth step is perhaps the most important. This is where closeted gay players and fans watch how players and coaches and industry insiders close ranks around figures like the Vikings' special teams coordinator Mike Priefer who, Chris Kluwe alleges, said, "We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows" during a meeting.
Kluwe's accusations are being investigated, but the swiftness and conviction with which his former team members rallied to Priefer's defense is informative. Whatever happened this season, there's no denying that — in an era of unprecedented breakthroughs for LGBT visibility in sports — the absence of an out NFL player has itself become an undeniable presence. And that player's silence is louder than any of the league's attempts at putting on an LGBT-friendly face. Meanwhile, the league's two most prominent advocates for LGBT equality, Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo, have hung up their helmets likely for good and not by choice. The NFL's closet door isn't just closed; it's locked.
So, we reach step five: Closeted players grit their teeth and keep their heads down. I'll come out when I retire, when the lights die down, when the injury happens and doesn't go away. In the meantime, just outside that closet door: Fans, online and in the stadiums, are raging, addled by the energy of competition and the bull-headedness of the social web. The media, already in the locker room after each game for interviews, proves again and again its gift for invasion. "Come out, come out, whoever you are — and when you do, you'll be ours."