This week, America’s most popular sport found itself under the country’s brightest spotlight, as has been the norm for years during the days leading up to the Super Bowl. But at the tail end of a season ripe with controversies — both minor and significant — media week has only brought greater attention to the NFL’s growing number of problem spots. From the appalling and inexcusable anti-gay remarks of Chris Culliver to the storm brewing around the epidemic of violence within the game, the NFL has been floundering during its time on sports’ biggest stage.
On Tuesday, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver took center stage with his astoundingly insensitive and harsh response during an interview with radio host Artie Lange. When Lange asked Culliver if a gay athlete would be welcome on the 49ers, Culliver told him, “I don’t do the gay guys. I don’t do that … We don’t have any gay guys on the team. They gotta get up outta here if they do.”
His words undoubtedly caused a few jaws to drop. But, mostly, Culliver’s comments come as no great surprise. And this is where the true problem lies.
Culliver’s anti-gay remarks are bigger than the ignorance of one man. They represent a culture of homophobia that dominates the realm of professional sports, perhaps no more so than in football. And they come through amplified by the popularity of the game and the widespread attention it garners.
A handful of NFL players have stepped up in defense of gay rights this season, even prior to Culliver’s comments. But the sad truth is that until a current player — ideally a prominent one — comes out to the public, not much is going to change. More than six decades later, the sports world is in desperate need of a new kind of Jackie Robinson.
In the mean time, though, it wouldn’t kill the NFL to implement some sanctions against Culliver. In fact, it could probably only help. Culliver simply isn’t the kind of player that fans will throw a fit about if he’s hit with a suspension, so the risk involved is miniscule, especially in comparison to what can be gained if an organization like the NFL, one that holds the attention of a nation, takes a stand.
And media week has heightened the call for the NFL to take a stand on another pressing issue as well. The culture of violence that surrounds the game, both on and off the field, can no longer be ignored. Far too much has been brought to light about the impact of the collision-heavy sport on the physical and mental state of players, both retired and current.
When the president of the United States takes the time to tell you that certain things in your sport might be out of control, you might want to listen up.
Players like Ed Reed have come forth and said that players in the NFL know what they’re signing up for when they agree to play professional football. They are aware of the risks and of the potentially terrifying and painful future that lies ahead for them after retirement, and they accept it.
But as the game’s popularity continues to grow, so do the stakes. Because there is a future to think about now, another generation of kids who want to grow up to be football players. The NFL holds the power to make a better and safer future for them, because they shouldn’t have to face the same consequences that this generation of players, tragically and unnecessarily, may have to.
At the height of football’s popularity, the NFL has to realize the vast power that it holds. It hasn’t done well in using the ever-brighter spotlight of media week to address the issues that people are calling upon them to address.
The NFL has to make steps toward cleaning up its act now, or risk getting booed off the stage.