We’re less prepared than an NFL locker room for an out-of-the-closet, gay football star.
The “we” I’m referring to is all of us — society at large. As verbally homophobic as a football locker room is, its level of intolerance doesn’t compare to American society and social media. The locker room is far less exploitive than American popular culture.
I offer the weird case of Kerry Rhodes as Exhibit A in my argument.
It appears Rhodes, an NFL safety since 2005, may have been outed. Taking advantage of the Manti Te’o-Lennay Kekua-sparked, media frenzy surrounding gay football players, someone leaked a suggestive, shirtless photo of Rhodes online gleefully carrying his equally-gleeful male assistant in tropical, vacation sun.
Rhodes quickly issued a statement claiming that his impossible-to-ignore glee had nothing to do with an attraction to Russell “Hollywood” Simpson, the male assistant.
“Photos have been circulating of my former assistant and I that have caused some rumors regarding my sexuality,” Rhodes told TMZ, “and I wanted to address the situation. I am not gay. The shots were taken during a past vacation in a casual environment with my entire business team. I know a lot of people are recently talking about athletes struggling to come out to their fans right now, and I support them, as well as wish those individuals comfort.”
Well, Hollywood Simpson disagrees with Rhodes’ interpretation of the photo and their relationship. Simpson told two popular blogs that for 14 months he was “like” Rhodes’ wife. Simpson — or someone close to Simpson — released several more frolicking, suggestive photos of Rhodes and Simpson.
Simpson also revealed something very interesting, if true.
“Yes, his teammates did know about me,” Simpson told Bossip.com. “It was kinda unspoken but I was at all his training camps and events. The other wives knew and loved me, too. I was always there. It was no secret.”
In general, athletes are verbally unsophisticated, but their actions in a work environment can be quite mature, tolerant and sophisticated. Within the Arizona Cardinals and/or the New York Jets locker room, according to Simpson, no one cared who Rhodes frolicked with off the field and away from the locker room. Rhodes’ teammates seemingly only cared whether Rhodes could make plays.
We — fans and media — are the people who really care about what Rhodes does in his bedroom and with his male assistant. We are not as tolerant as football players. This is the beauty of team sports. They give participants a clear goal, a mission that helps teammates see past differences and focus on an individual’s ability to help the team reach its goal.
Hollywood Simpson isn’t on a team. He’s out for himself. He’s likely trying to launch a reality TV career. He’s hoping to be Ken Kardashian. Simpson plans to take advantage of Rhodes’ relative fame and ride it to riches. That’s the way of the world in the 21st century.
And that’s why a talented, closeted athlete is far more fearful of his non-teammates than his teammates. When baited by a comedian in the media, 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver made an ignorant homophobic remark before the Super Bowl. I don’t think his words reflect what his actions would be if he found out Colin Kaepernick was gay. (I’m in no way suggesting Kaepernick is gay; it’s just a hypothetical to make a point.)
But how would we respond? Not as well as the athletes.
Jackie Robinson won over his teammates and playing peers quicker than he won over baseball fans. Athletes want to win. Fans and the media are beholden to the status quo. Major League Baseball diamonds were integrated before Major League Baseball press boxes. Jackie Robinson was showering with his Dodgers teammates before his black chronicler, Wendell Smith, was granted a seat in the back of the press box.
When Hank Aaron shattered Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974, baseball fans badgered him with death threats, slurs and vulgarity.
Athletes are forced to embrace change long before the rest of society. The case of Kerry Rhodes is likely going to lead gay athletes to stay in the closet and keep their secret among teammates. Rhodes, 30, is a free agent. He had a solid year for Arizona in 2012. But does any team want to bring the Hollywood Simpson circus to town?
Branch Rickey made a business decision to sign Jackie Robinson. Rickey wanted to expand his customer base and improve his team. Rickey selected Robinson from a wide pool of prospects. Rickey groomed Robinson for the job. The Dodgers managed Robinson’s image. Robinson was college educated, counseled on how to deal with the abuse and quickly married shortly after being chosen to break the color barrier.
My point is Robinson was packaged to meet all the traditional American values.
Can a gay male athlete be packaged to meet all the traditional American values? He can certainly meet the values respected inside a locker room. We are the group that has work to do. Our traditional American values are going to have to be reshaped to make room for the gay man.