How Roger Goodell Helped Turn NFL Players Into Gay Rights Activists

Illustration for article titled How Roger Goodell Helped Turn NFL Players Into Gay Rights Activists

Originally published in Bloomberg View

From a legal standpoint, there's nothing remarkable about Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo's legal filing with the Supreme Court. Hundreds of people and organizations, from former Republican presidential candidate Jon M. Huntsman Jr. to the U.S. Justice Department, have also urged the justices to strike down California's ban on same-sex marriage.


In the context of the National Football League, though, Kluwe and Ayanbadejo's amicus brief is nothing less than a historic document.

In the sweaty, macho world of professional sports, the NFL sets the standard for homophobia. It's North America's only major professional league that has yet to fine, suspend or even reprimand one of its players for uttering an anti-gay slur. For that matter, the NFL hasn't even managed to pull off a successful public-service announcement: Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project, aimed at giving hope to gay teenagers, recently took down an anti-gay bullying PSA made by the San Francisco 49ers after a couple of the players who appeared in the video said they had no idea what it was about.

In their brief, filed last week, Kluwe, a punter for the Minnesota Vikings, and Ayanbadejo, a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, argue that for "far too long, professional sports have been a bastion of bigotry, intolerance and small-minded prejudice toward sexual orientation." Also last week, as if to prove the two players' thesis, some NFL teams were grilling prospects about their sexual orientation during the league's scouting combine in Indianapolis. Among their questions, according to University of Colorado player Nick Kasa: Do you have a girlfriend? Are you married? Do you like girls?

What are the odds that Major League Baseballs general managers are subjecting prospects to similar interrogations in spring training in Arizona and Florida?

NFL teams ask these questions because they can. With the exception of the handful of college stars destined to become first-round draft picks, the vast majority of guys hoping to play in the NFL are essentially interchangeable: They're all vulnerable job applicants in a violent, unforgiving business where the average career lasts a little more than three years. They aren't protected by the NFL's collective-bargaining agreement, and even if they were, it wouldn't apply at the combine, which is run by a third party.

The line of questioning speaks not only to the NFL'S homophobia but also to a deeper desire to control players' lives on and off the field. It's football's famous command-and-control culture taken to its logical extreme.

Illustration for article titled How Roger Goodell Helped Turn NFL Players Into Gay Rights Activists

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A culture like this is always going to have dissidents. Football has produced its share, from the inadvertently political Joe Namath, whose lifestyle landed him on President Richard Nixon's enemies list, to the self-consciously political Dave Meggyesy, who quit the NFL in 1969, linking the game's militaristic mentality with Nixon's own on his way out the door: "It's no accident that the most repressive political regime in the history of this country is ruled by a football freak." (New York Jets coach Weeb Ewbank responded that Meggyesy, whose memoir "Out of Their League" details his disillusionment with the NFL, had fallen for "Communist hogwash" and accused him of poisoning America's youth.)


Namath and Meggyesy were products of both their league and their political moment. What about Kluwe and Ayanbadejo?

It's hard to imagine two pro football players writing a brief like theirs 40, 20 or even 10 years ago. This is a more progressive era, at least with respect to gay rights. Part of the change is demographic. According to Kluwe, most of today's players don't see what the big deal is about same-sex marriage, even if the league itself seems determined to cling to its "small-minded prejudice toward sexual orientation."


Kluwe and Ayanbadejo's brief is significant for another reason. It's worth recalling what first drew Kluwe into the gay-marriage debate, at least publicly: player solidarity. His scathing (and hilarious) open letter to Maryland legislator C. Emmett Burns Jr. was prompted by Burns's effort to stop Ayanbadejo's outspoken support for a state initiative to legalize same-sex marriage. (It passed.)


"We know that the owners are always going to try to make as much money as they can," Kluwe told me. "We're the only ones who are going to look out for each other, so we have to look out for each other. It's just an NFL thing."

Kluwe isn't just a product of the NFL; he's a product of Roger Goodell's NFL. Commissioners have tangled with individual players before, but Goodell has transformed tension into polarization, essentially pitting the league against all of its players. It started with the 2011 player lockout, and continued through the witch hunt known as "Bountygate" and into last year's drawn-out referee lockout—carried on despite the obvious risks to player safety posed by replacement referees.


Don Van Natta Jr. gathers a lot of the string in his profile of Goodell in ESPN The Magazine. (The commissioner didn't cooperate.) "It's like a dictatorship," Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White told Van Natta. "Whatever he says, that's the end of it."

Is it? Foment enough mistrust among your people, and they will start to fight back, even if the specific dispute has nothing to do with them. Teams have been asking intrusive questions at the combine for years. Only now are players—prospective, active, former—starting to wonder if they are appropriate, let alone legal. (In response, the NFL says it is looking into reports about the questions.)


Once this process starts, it's hard to stop. Thousands of former players are already involved in lawsuits against the NFL over brain injuries. It may only be a matter of time before a lot of current players start questioning a lot of things about the NFL.

Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. A long-time contributor to The New York Times Magazine, he is the author of the best-selling Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning, The Challenge, and Death Comes to Happy Valley. He's @jonathanmahler on Twitter.