The question of gay players in the NFL

Kicking around some ideas with the rest of the Zone Reads crew today, someone brought up an interesting point: Kerry Rhodes, a safety who’s versatile in coverage and as a blitzer, who’s been a starter for eight years in the league and was still a solid, above-average player last year, was cut by Arizona and remains unsigned.

This could be for any number of reasons: Rhodes is 31 and could be perceived to have lost a step. Maybe he wants too much money. Maybe he’s not interested in signing with a team until the final cuts, so he can skip training camp.

But what if it’s because he’s gay?

We aren’t the first to suggest this. A month ago, Dan Avery of NewNowNext wrote a column with this exact same thesis. Of course, the first question is: Is Rhodes gay? We can’t confirm that, but there have been rumors to that effect, and as you can see in the linked article, there are photos of him being affectionate with another man (that man, Russell “Hollywood” Simpson, claims to have been Rhodes’ boyfriend).

Anyway, the question of Rhodes’ sexuality may not be relevant: It’s possible that teams think even rumors to that effect are enough reason to shy away from a player. The old canards of locker-room chemistry and the culture of football are often cited, either by those who want to explain why there are no openly gay players in the NFL, or those who want to explain why teams might shy away from signing a player thought to be gay. This offseason, there seems to be a correlation with players who are possibly homosexual or who are outspoken in the gay rights movement being released by their teams.

Brendon Ayanbadejo played for the Baltimore Ravens from 2008-2012. During this time, he became an outspoken advocate of equal rights for LGBT people, specifically on the issue of gay marriage. His advocacy gained nationwide attention in 2012, when Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr., wrote Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti asking him, essentially, to get his players under control. Ayanbadejo became even more outspoken in his stance, and the Ravens supported his right to speak.

Ayanbadejo was released by the Ravens on April 3. On April 5, he made a statement that as many as four gay NFL players were in talks about coming out together. He has not been signed by another team. Punter Chris Kluwe, another outspoken gay-rights advocate, is similarly out of a job. (The Minnesota Vikings released him on May 6, and he signed with the Raiders, where he was just released in final cuts September 1.)

Now we’ll come right out and admit it: The case that teams are actively shutting out gay players is shaky. First of all, Ayanbadejo and Kluwe are not gay (or if they are, this must come as a great surprise to their wives). Second, their releases can be explained by totally legitimate reasons related to football economics and/or putting the best product on the field. Ayanbadejo is 36 years old and plays a very limited role as a special teams player. The Ravens have had to make cap space for the large contract extension they gave Joe Flacco this offseason. These two facts make Ayanbadejo a natural candidate for release. In Kluwe’s case, both the Vikings and the Raiders ultimately decided to go with rookies– younger, cheaper, probably with greater leg strength at this point– at the position. Makes sense.

However, Rhodes is still the odd case. He seems too talented to still be on the sidelines. And even though Ayanbadejo and Kluwe are outspoken LGBT-rights advocates, neither of them are gay themselves, where Rhodes might be. Perhaps NFL team executives fear, rightly or wrongly, that Rhodes’ alleged personal life will cause a locker-room distraction. (Simpson says that Rhodes’ teammates in Arizona knew about their relationship and were fine with it.) Perhaps that old idea of locker-room machismo is clouding teams’ ability to accurately evaluate the issue. Perhaps teams actively don’t want an outed gay player on their roster.

Of course, the real answer could be the most straightforward: Teams don’t believe in Rhodes’ ability to contribute for the price he’s asking. It’s certainly possible that’s all this is, but it’s still worth considering.

And maybe this ties back into Ayanbadejo’s claim that four gay players were planning to come out together, something that never actually happened this offseason. Perhaps those players saw that Rhodes was being shut out and concluded, rightly or wrongly, that coming out would hurt their careers and their livelihood. If they think Rhodes is not being signed because he’s gay, then maybe it doesn’t matter if that is true, because the perception is affecting these players’ ability to be open about who they are and still make a living at the trade they’ve chosen.

I don’t know that Rhodes is being shut out of the league because he’s gay, but I wasn’t even aware that that was a possibility before this weekend, and that awareness is the sort of thing I think needs to be spread.

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One thought on “The question of gay players in the NFL

  1. Nath and I had been discussing this for a few days. It really does not make any sense whatsoever that Rhodes is unsigned. He is too good of a player to have not inked at least a 1 yr contract. Consider further that today’s league is so focused around passing the ball, and that at least half the teams could use an upgrade at safety, and it REALLY does not compute. Good players get signed no less than halfway through training camp because teams want them in the playbook, ready to go from a scheme perspective.

    I am shocked but not shocked to feel that his sexuality is the likely issue at hand here

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