Gay Athletes, the NFL, Kerry Rhodes, and the Importance of Being a Willing, First Outed Player


In the motion picture “In and Out” Kevin Kline’s teacher character, Howard, is outed by a former student, played by Matt Dillon, while accepting an Oscar.

This news comes as a shock to Howard’s friends, family, wife, and interesting enough, himself. Over the course of the movie, Howard explores his possible homosexuality, eventually realizing that indeed he is gay, which results in both being fired from his job and gaining the support of his friends, family, and students along the way.

In similar recent Hollywood happenings, the Jackie Robinson biopic, ’42’ was released last week.  It tells the well-known story of Robinson, the first African-American baseball player, signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

The movie is less about the moment in which Jackie Robinson breaks the color barrier, and more about how Jackie was the perfect force of strength, leadership, hardheaded, and talent to set the perfect example for future African-Americans to play in Major League Baseball, as well as every minority that plays in every major sport today.

Many wonder what would have happened if any part of Jackie Robinson’s make-up were different.  If he were any of less talented, less successful, less able to withstand the pressure, less able to be the example – if things would be the same today – if Larry Doby and Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron, and Ken Griffey Jr. would have been able to follow in future years, decades, and generations.

Enter the salacious gossip news of last night, which revealed the possibility of the first active gay NFL player.

Kerry Rhodes, drafted by the New York Jets, and most recently played for the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League, was outed by an alleged former lover, Russell “Hollywood” Jackson, to Black Sports Online.

The details are not important.  To this point, Rhodes has denied the allegations.  Whether or not this is true, it is fairly easy for people to make their own assumptions.

For a news story grounded on private issues, it will have major consequences not just on Kerry Rhodes, but the NFL, American sports, and athletes everywhere.

Rhodes is now left standing on a pedestal he clearly did not want to be on, all by himself.

Such a major personal life decision has been wrongly taken out of his hands.  As can be seen by the allusion to “In and Out” made before, even on the micro-level, this is a major event in a person’s life that affects friends, family, and associates.  It changes relationships, it changes situations, and it has potential to change every aspect of a person’s life.

The fact is, Kerry Rhodes’ world will never be the same.  Not only do the people close to him now know, but everyone around the world knows.  As much as we hope that he can live the life he wants still, we know that the world is not at that point yet.  Just take a look at some of the tweets [I edited out names – specific people are not the story] a quick scouring of Twitter yields today [warning for some language]:

“Kerry Rhodes didn’t need to confirm he’s gay. Game film of his tackles is all the proof you need.”

[reply] “…explains why he liked tackling from behind.”

“Kerry Rhodes should just say he’s gay and try to get on with a team after the draft. I mean, he is good at tackling men LMFAOOOOOOOOOOOOO”

“Didn’t Kerry Rhodes and Braylon Edwards live together for a while in NY?”

“DAMN #KerryRhodes…..I knew u were too clean on that episode of #MTVcribs…..damn shame homie”

“That interview from Kerry Rhodes’ ex is troubling but I don’t expect nothing more from a young faggie”

“Kerry Rhodes is a fag.”

There is a spread from outright hate to what some may consider good-natured jokes, but the problem with even the good-natured jokes is when you are alone on an island, the loneliness of the situation does not allow for differentiation between “laughing with you” and “laughing at you”.

Of course, it is good to see words of encouragement and tolerance as well:

“I could careless if @kerryrhodes is gay & if he is or isn’t it’s up 2 HIM 2 decide if he wants it public, NOT rumor websites or anyone else”

“I mean, Kerry Rhodes is gonna have to come out the closet any day now, right? Just hope the league & fans accept him. #notimeforintolerance”

“If Kerry Rhodes is gay so the hell what.. All these attempts to “out” the man without it being his doing is both alarming and savage.”

“I think any player will of course have negative feedback but it only takes one strong person to pave the way.”

“I have been waiting so long for it to happen but not this way u are absolutely right. I have no respect for people who out others”
“@Kerry25Rhodes No one deserves this, keep your head up! Wishing you all the best.”

For Rhodes’ sake, at the very least, we should all hope the positive will out-weigh the negative if the rumors are true and he does indeed admit it in the future.

That said, there is a more widespread issue at hand.   Jackie Robinson knew what his job was when he decided to become the first African-American player in baseball.

Kerry Rhodes may become that all important first gay and out male athlete in American sports.  He will be doing so without making his own decision on the matter.

Whether or not he likes it, he suddenly becomes the face of the issue.  It is not a matter of if there are gay athletes in sports, but if they will feel comfortable coming out.

U.S. International Soccer player, Robbie Rogers, came out as gay in February.  But instead of continuing to play, which he could have at the young age of 25, he decided to retire.  He cited wanting to “discover [himself] away from football”, but that also assumes the life of a football (American Soccer) player does not allow him to live how he wishes.

The same article quotes a director of a UK-based support group, Ruth Hunt, “Homophobia remains rife in football and we must work together to stop it for the sake of the game.”

It is that worry that every gay football player or other sports athlete in the United States must be fearful of.  Luckily, Rogers’ peers came out in support of him, including FC Dallas goalkeeper Chris Seitz, who said “Really want to give a huge shout out to a great friend for being one of the bravest men I know.”

There have been gay NFL players, but they have admitted it after their playing days.  One of these include former Green Bay Packers defensive lineman, Esera Tuaolo.

He played nine years in the NFL, while keeping his secret, leaning on alcohol to ease the pain, instead of friends and colleagues.

“Many times, when driving 100 miles per hour, I felt as if I could turn that wheel and end it all,” Tuaolo said to ABC’s “Good Morning America” in 2002.

Clearly he did not feel like he could come out at that time.  But now, knowing what we do about Robbie Rogers’ situation, is it possible in the year 2013 for teammates and teams themselves to be supportive of a gay athlete?

Mike Freeman of CBS Sports wrote today that there is a known gay athlete in the NFL [no mention of Rhodes in the article] and “many on the team knew it, and no one cared.” That is encouraging.

Other encouragement comes from a different sport, hockey, which has taken several steps towards fighting homophobia in the sport.

Patrick Burke, son of longtime NHL GM Brian Burke, started the You Can Play initiative in 2012, with the focus on bringing awareness to this issue.

“Through You Can Play, we want to let guys know why that [casual homophobia] is hard for gay athletes to hear. Even if you don’t mean it in that sense, there’s probably a guy in the locker room that can’t take it in any way but in that sense.” said Burke to Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo Sports.

Eliminating hateful language and traditional behavior that may breed hate is an excellent start to changing the environment.

So with the possibility that a player would be supported – now remains a final question:

Kerry Rhodes was released earlier this off-season and is now on the free agent market.  Will any team step up to sign him?

Rhodes is 31 years old and while he may not be in his “prime” he is certainly not done after 58 tackles and 4 interceptions over 15 games with the Cards in 2012.

But the team that signs him will also be making the statement that they are not just “fine” with a gay athlete in the NFL, but that they officially “support” one.

NFL teams keep bringing back criminals, substance abusers, and public relations disasters – distancing themselves from the first outed football player would be a definitive statement;  they can overlook many other distractions but fail to bring in talent because of this distraction.

Will any NFL team step up and be that team?  Only time will tell.

What we do know?

Kerry Rhodes will be in the unwanted spotlight going forward.  Will he suffer an injustice like job loss as Kevin Kline’s character faced in “In and Out”?  Will he feel separated from everyone like Esera Tuaolo?

Or will he overwhelmingly be supported by teammates and colleagues like Robbie Rogers?  Will teammates not care and treat him the same as Mike Freeman’s article suggests?

Let’s hope with all the tragedies in the world recently, an ill-outed truth will lead to incredible positive change, at least in sports, going forward.


Filed under Jets, More, NFL

4 responses to “Gay Athletes, the NFL, Kerry Rhodes, and the Importance of Being a Willing, First Outed Player

  1. whoever the ex is who outed him must be a real scumbag. I’m sure this is exactly what a guy in transition probably scraping to make a team did not need to happen.

  2. I think the lack of large-scale ESPN-type coverage for this is laughable…Especially after the Britney Griner talk last week.

  3. Pingback: Jason Collins, The Gay Jackie Robinson: America’s Long Awaited, and Needed, Out Athlete | Too Much For Tweets

  4. Pingback: Jason Collins Is Actually Not The First Openly Gay Active NBA Player Yet…Because No Team Will Sign Him | Too Much For Tweets

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