Is it OK to feel sorry for San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver? Can I say that?
Because I do.
He was asked during Super Bowl Media Day about his sexual plans for Super Bowl week and if they included any gay men, and he followed stupid with stupider. Instead of saying “WTF?” he said, “Ain’t no gay people on my team. They gotta get up outta here if they do. Can’t be with that sweet stuff.”
And this is how a Super Bowl week that began with almost every player not named Ed Reed mocking the President of the United States for the mistake of being concerned about their health ended with a backup cornerback doing a forced backpedal/apology/baring of his soul on his thoughts about gays. Wedged in between was Deer Antler Velvet talk and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco declaring a Super Bowl in New York to be a “retarded” idea.
This week has not been the NFL’s finest verbal hour, and it provides a pretty good argument for having only a week between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl. We keep asking players questions far outside their sphere of influence — then we kill them for not answering with pretty little lies. Athletes absolutely deserve the bully pulpit their talent affords them, and not simply those espousing politically correct or popular opinions.
I am going to enflame many with this, but I believe Culliver had every right to his original opinion on a gay teammate, just like Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo has every right to advocate for gay marriage as he did to reporters on Thursday.
This has zero to do with my opinion about either subject. This has everything to do with my belief that honest speech starts honest conversations, and honest conversations promote change — a point Niners coach Jim Harbaugh perfectly delivered when asked about Culliver.
“I think it’s something that he will learn about himself,” Harbaugh said. “You saw his statement; he pledged to grow from it. Hope and pray that it affects him in a positive way going forward.”
I will argue this until the day I die: The Chris Cullivers are not the biggest danger to equality in America. They, at least, speak their truth, however ugly and grotesque that truth is to some of us. Way more dangerous are the CEOs, politicians and average everyday Americans who say the right things publicly, then unleash their homophobic, racist and sexist garbage behind closed doors in ways that impact the lives of others.
Say this for Culliver and Flacco, too: Both apologized.
The Culliver apology was especially real because (a) it seemed sincere, a guy recognizing in hindsight how ugly his words sounded and how he did not want to be that guy and (b) it had to be repeated ad naseum before approximately 457 reporters — give or take 400 — gathered around him Thursday in what amounted to a public shaming.
“If the reporters are like great white sharks, he’s the chum right now,” 49ers linebacker Clark Haggans said. “It’s blood in the water, and there are a bunch of Jaws all around there trying to mutilate him.”
Culliver drew the short straw for no other reason than his idiocy happens to include buzzwords, and he plays in San Francisco — one of the most tolerant cities on Earth. So, of course, there was going to be blowback.
Yet for many, Flacco’s word choice was every bit as offensive, and not a lot of Ravens and 49ers players acquitted themselves well when asked about President Obama’s comments about having “to think long and hard” about letting his kid play football because, frankly, he worries about the brain health of these players. Player response went from tone deaf to ridiculous, with more than a few NFL types actually noting a player’s willingness to risk concussions and long-term CTE ramifications was some sort of manhood test with media giggling along.
It’s only now, after almost a full week of Ravens safety Ed Reed talking about his fading memory, that everybody has stopped cracking funnies, and even then we have devoted more talk to the fuzzy shavings from genetically engineered baby deer antlers than to potentially compromised brain health.
As I said, this week in New Orleans has not been the NFL’s best verbal showcase. The blame, though, at least partially, is on us for asking these guys questions that they have no business answering — especially during the biggest week of their professional lives — and then torching them for their honest answers.
Don’t ask. Or don’t ask if only a single answer will do.
This is why I feel bad for Culliver. What he said was wrong, dead wrong. It also started a conversation that will do more to advance gay-rights awareness in locker rooms and possibly make it easier for a player to come out while playing than any pretty little lie ever would.