I find myself in a muddle over who to blame for the Chris Culliver fiasco at the Super Bowl this year. And I’m not referring to the nightmare he had on the field in the first half where he did an almost-perfect impersonation of an idiot trying to pretend he is a football player.
I refer instead, of course, to his Media Day interview five days earlier with comedian Artie Lange, in which Culliver produced his 30-second anti-gay diatribe that lit up the week and gave the media a touching point for debate all the way to kickoff on Sunday.
If you write down what he said and read it back, it makes for horrible reading. It marks Culliver out as a gay-basher and the worst kind of bigot. It suggests that he has been keeping his anti-gay feelings to himself, possibly pretending otherwise while actually feeling deep down that he can’t stand gay people.
Then, if you take a look at the interview on film and take it in context, particularly with the question that preceded it, you see it in a little different light. That context in no way changes his response to the gay question. That is still just as deplorable and is something Culliver will struggle to explain even when he decides to talk publicly again. He can try to explain it as a joke in the style of the interview but that still won’t explain why he didn’t just answer it straight instead of allegedly playing along with the tone of the questions.
I then thought about blaming Lange for the way he almost entrapped Culliver. Lange later appeared to be claiming he asked the question in order to open up the issue and although not gay himself, he does have a history of supporting gay rights. But he used the opportunity not to do a serious interview but rather to set up a guy who probably is not the most media-smart player in the NFL with a series of questions designed to relax him before lowering the boom with the big one. If Lange was serious about getting into the gay issue why didn’t he try asking it of a far bigger name on the team or attempt to ask the head coach or ask the question of the commissioner at his annual media address.
I accept that Lange was more likely to get an honest response from a player who sits at a locker all week and that perhaps he felt the only way to get an honest response was not to make that the sole focus of an interview. But by dressing it up the way he did, his target was always going to be able to get himself off the hook by saying later that he thought the questions were a comedy routine and that he was answering likewise.
Finally, I thought about blaming the league, or to be more accurate of pointing at the league and saying ‘you got what has been coming to you for years’ over the way they have not only stood by and done nothing but the way in which they have actively encouraged the development of the three-ring circus that Media Day has now become, a subject I will return to later.
But the core issue at the moment is over Culliver’s answer to the question and – joking or not – does it accurately reflect the feeling held – covertly or not – by active NFL players? Is there a homophobic atmosphere in NFL locker rooms? And even if there is but it is not openly voiced, is there enough of an implicit anti-gay feeling that any player who is gay feels incapable of coming forward and proclaiming his sexuality to his teammates and the world?
Who would ever have thought in the 1960s that gay players would have a tougher time being accepted in the NFL than black players? At the start of that decade, the Washington Redskins still refused to sign black players and made no secret of that fact. But, thankfully, the NFL, the Redskins and the world have all learned to grow up and be morally re-educated about prejudice. Or, it would appear, about some prejudice, at least.
The difference between black and gay, of course, is that you can’t hide or deny that you are black, a fact which in the days of open discrimination stopped a lot of black players getting work in the NFL or places on college teams. Or places at college full stop.
As strange as it sounds, gay people do not have the luxury of their sexuality being visible on the outside. They have a choice in making a choice to reveal or not, so a gay football player who feels as though he would be discriminated against simply for being gay can choose to keep it a secret, making it virtually impossible for the league to enforce rules against their discrimination. And yet this comes from a country who more than a year ago finally removed all discrimination against gay people in its military, including the hated ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ law, now allowing thousands of gay servicemen and women the right to equal footing in their job without fear of prejudice, the same military that NFL players repeatedly salute and honour, even in the Super Bowl kickoff show.
We hear a lot about the idea that what is needed is for a real football superstar to come out, to declare himself as gay. We hear that if you could hand pick that person it would be an All-Pro, probably a quarterback or a middle linebacker. The linebacker option would probably have most mileage because of the image of him being the toughest, hardest, meanest player on a team. But, in reality, most people feel that any gay player brave enough to stand up and start the ball rolling is what is needed in order to move the issue to centre stage.
However, is that view not the wrong way round? I have a feeling that what is going to move the issue in the right direction is not a player coming out but all gay players feeling that they can come out. And in my opinion, the way that is going to happen is for all gay players to feel they can come out without fear. So what is to stop a player, or a group of players, or a team of players, or indeed the entire players union making a stand and openly declaring that every player who belongs to the NFLPA will show no prejudice to a gay teammate in the same way as they would show no prejudice to a black teammate, an Asian teammate, a Muslim, catholic or Jewish teammate. If the root problem is the perception gay players have over how they will be treated, then make a move to extinguish that fear.
It has been 28 years since Rock Hudson and Aids. It has been 20 years since the movie Philadelphia. Surely prejudice has moved on. Surely education has changed minds. Surely society, football players included, is more rounded in its opinions than back in those days.
It has been 23 years since Justin Fashanu became Britain’s first soccer player to openly declare himself as gay. He had enough to deal with already, as he started playing at a time when black players were discriminated against. Monkey chants and banana throwing happened in our soccer grounds during the 1980s.
Fashanu took all that on the chin and became the first black £1million player in Britain. But when he came out in a newspaper article in 1990, even his own brother, fellow player John, shunned him. His career took a downward turn and, somewhat ironically, he fled to America to try to make a career there. Even worse, it was after an incident with a 17-year-old in Maryland, which was investigated by police, that Fashanu returned to Britain and killed himself. He left a suicide note declaring his innocence but that he expected the police and public had mentally convicted him already. Tragically, police in America revealed after his death that there had been no plans for any further investigation.
I refuse to believe that a gay NFL player coming out in 2013 would be or would feel subjected to the same sort of treatment. I am sure there are those in NFL locker rooms who have anti-gay feelings, whether openly or privately held. But I also think there are just as many decent people who will stand up tall when that day comes, as inevitably it will.
As for the NFL Media Day problem, consider this was how all this Chris Culliver stuff got started. Lange’s question before the gay one was: “Give me an under/over on white chicks.”
Culliver replied: “On white chicks?”
Lange: “Yeah, how many you gonna bang this week?”
Culliver: “None, I can’t bang no white chicks before the Super Bowl.”
Lange: “You probably do alright with the ladies, I assume.”
Culliver: “Yeah, I do real good. I’m cool with the ladies.”
You see the way Lange set him up? He not only got into a racial issue by asking Culliver, who is black, about “white chicks” but he painted Culliver as a ladies man, a real stud. And right at that moment, with Culliver relaxed and sharing in the joke, that was where he hit him with the gay issue. It was hardly subtle. Set the guy up as a babe magnet and then immediately go for the gay angle but a guy like Culliver probably didn’t see it coming.
Lange’s next question? “And what about gay guys? Any of them approach you?” And that was where it all went wrong for Culliver.
Lange, of course, could easily claim that setting up a target like that is the only way to get to a person’s true feelings. And there is some merit in that. Sometimes, in order to reveal a deeply-secreted feeling, you have to use underhand methods. Entrapment is sometimes the only way to get to the truth. It is exactly the same way lawyers in court will try to tie a witness or defendant in knots to get to the truth and to expose the lies.
But Culliver was an easy target. Even if he is secretly anti-gay, exposing him will not expose nor solve the problem. It is far deeper than that so if your real motivation is to help in solving the issue then you have to be better than Lange was in his sneaky interview. And that is why I truly believe that the solution lies with the straight players making a stand in order that the gay ones feel they can be as open as they want to be, whether they are superstar linebackers or gunners on the return team.
As for Media Day. The NFL has allowed it to descend into farce. When I started going to Super Bowls, it had merit for football journalists. We could ask football questions and mix it up with a bit of feature-type stuff, and have a bit of a laugh with some of the players.
But the league has spent years giving out accreditation to all sorts, from kids to glamour models, the Golf Channel to an assortment of bozos who come looking to cause embarrassment for the players or themselves or both. Is it really any wonder then that the league has exposed itself and its players to ridicule on an international stage?
I am not suggesting that the league should engage in a suppression of free speech but it might want to adhere to some kind of standards for such a prestigious event. And over the years, there have been plenty of serious media who have made far more and better-resourced attempts to expose bad things about the NFL than simply setting up a player who couldn’t see an elephant coming down the street with a set of questions designed to embarrass him on an issue that deserves a much more comprehensive investigation and response than that.