The easy cliché goes like this: Sports is a mirror of society.
But what struck me most in speaking with Esera Tuaolo, the former NFL defensive lineman who tells how he came to acknowledge his homosexuality in the latest issue of The Magazine, is how little the football world reflects the attitudes of society. Or demographics, for that matter.
As a private citizen, Tuaolo is free to live together with his partner, purchase a nice suburban home, and adopt two adorable children. In some locales, the couple can register as domestic partners, and many potential employers will insure them like any other pair of spouses. In the real world, some people will be intolerant and downright ugly, but Tuaolo says many of his neighbors won't even blink.
The football world is another story. In talking to current and former NFL players, and to Tuaolo, you get a sense of what Jackie Robinson and Marion Motley were up against. The locker room culture Tuaolo reveals is so hostile to homosexuals that many people think a player's career would be over the minute he chose to come out. It was so repressive it drove Tuaolo to drink, and to the brink of suicide.
Three decades later, Tuaolo's NFL world sounds more isolating even than Kopay's was. In a career that spanned nine years in the 1990s, Tuaolo never knew of a single other player who was gay.
Contrast that to society as a whole, where Will and Grace is a top-rated show, where families sing "YMCA" at sporting events, where gay politicians, businessmen, actors, musicians and ordinary people are coming out more often, with fewer repercussions.
There are many reasons for this discrepancy. Top college and pro football players lead fairly cloistered lives in a male-centered world where the appearance of macho heterosexuality is everything. In many ways, that world hasn't changed much since Vince Lombardi's day.
When the AIDS epidemic hit, the stigma it created for gay men may have bred even more intolerance in the football culture than in society at large -- intolerance that didn't recede as the death rate in the U.S. epidemic did.
Meanwhile, the rise of "shock" pop culture aimed at teenage and young-adult males -- the demographic that encompasses top ballplayers -- had more than its share of rappers and heavy-metal bands spouting gay-bashing lyrics. At the risk of sounding like Tipper Gore, that no doubt influenced some locker-room opinions on the issue.
The Giants' Jeremy Shockey unwittingly showed the disconnect between football and America when he recently went on Howard Stern's radio show and said he wouldn't stand for having a gay player on his team. Shockey seemed, well, shocked by mainstream reaction to his comments - unbelievably, to him, people were offended. (Unlike John Rocker, Shockey quickly apologized.)
While society in fits and starts has moved forward in tolerating and accepting homosexuality, football has run in place, maybe even backpedaled. In this case, if the NFL is a mirror of society, the mirror is cracked.
Luke Cyphers is a senior editor at ESPN The Magazine.
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Esera Tuaolo's former teammate, Sterling Sharpe, and ESPN's Luke Cyphers comment on Tuaolo's announcement.
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