I would expect that of all of the NFL teams to espouse homophobic views, the San Francisco 49ers would probably be the least receptive forum. That did not appear to deter 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver who raged against gays in the locker room just days before Super Bowl XLVII. In contrast, Ravens player Brendon Ayanbadejo has used the Superbowl to advocate the rights of same-sex couples. (Conversely, Ravens center Matt Birk came out opposing equal rights for gays in marriages). Suddenly, the Superbowl has become a debate on gay and lesbian rights.
Having a football celebrity like Ayanbadejo support gay rights is a significant boost for the movement given the macho image of NFL players. Moreover, the disagreement from players like Birk was not particularly surprising. However, San Francisco is viewed by many as the citadel of the gay rights movement, making the comments of Culliver more controversial.
The comments came in an interview with Shock jock Artie Lange. (Just a note, “interviews with Shock Jocks” is enough to send most NFL public relations people into a fetal position). In the interview, Culliver struggled with both the English language and equal rights: “I don’t do the gay guys man. I don’t do that. No, we don’t got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do. . . . Can’t be with that sweet stuff. Nah…can’t be…in the locker room man. Nah.” When prompted by Lange, Culliver offered an olive branch — stay in the closet and come out in a decade: “Yeah, come out 10 years later after that.”
The most worrisome statement is “we don’t got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do. . . .” There was a time when football players said such hateful things about blacks and other minorities.
Now here is the question. All of these players are exercising free speech on both sides of an issue. Moreover, neither Culliver nor Birk have been accused of taking any action against gays or lesbians. San Francisco has the following protection for sexual orientation:
SEC. 3303. EMPLOYMENT.
(a) Prohibited Activity. It shall be unlawful for any person to do any of the following acts wholly or partially because of an employee’s, independent contractor’s or an applicant for employment’s actual or perceived race, color, ancestry, national origin, place of birth, sex, age, religion, creed, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, weight or height:
(1) By an employer: To fail or refuse to hire, or to discharge any individual; to discriminate against any individual with respect to compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment, including promotion; or to limit, segregate or classify employees in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities, or otherwise adversely affect his/her status as an employee;
This addresses employers who are also subject to penalties for hostile workplaces. Can the 49ers limit such comments to protect against a hostile workplace as it would racist or sexist comments? Where do we draw the line between free speech and anti-discrimination?
I believe that players must be protected in sharing such comments, even when they are offensive. The line is crossed however when those comments are directed against particular individuals or used to create a hostile environment. The fact is that NFL players are celebrities and are often solicited for their views on public issues. I have never understood the hold of players like Culliver who can barely put together a complete sentence in espousing hateful thoughts. (By the way, the faculty at South Carolina may want to address how this individual graduated from their institution with such a limited hold on basic English). However, that is the celebrity driven society in which we live and those celebrities come in every model from the righteous to the wicked. Many of us defended Ayanbadejo when a state legislator wrote to the team to condemn his comments and views. These players are exercising the same free speech rights and they are doing so in their private time. The most that should happen is that the 49ers should state that such views are not those of the team — or most people in San Francisco.
As for the rest of us, a lot of people just switched over to the Ravens as the preferred team this Sunday.
You can listen to the interview below.