NFL Odds and Ends

As a (sort of) sports journalist, what I crave, more than anything, is candor. Candor is such a rare quality in any athlete, coach, or even announcer. Everyone toes the company line and says absolutely nothing interesting or insightful. The best you can hope for is someone who manages to be slightly humorous when they give their nonetheless canned statement.

James Harrison, in his recent interview with Men's Journal, was candid. Oh my God, was he candid. I guess I better be careful what I wish for.

Harrison called NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a devil and a dictator, among other things. But the real money quote was this:

"My (reputation) is James Harrison, mean son of a bitch who loves hitting the hell out of people. But up until last year, there was no word of me being dirty — till Roger Goodell, who’s a crook and a puppet, said I was the dirtiest player in the league. If that man was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn’t do it. I hate him and will never respect him."

Well! I can't recall the last time I had such mixed feelings on a soundbite.

It starts with my mixed feelings about James Harrison, the man. He's from my hometown of Akron so ... yay! But he attended loathsome Kent (proud Akron Zip here) and now plays for the loathsome Steelers.

Anytime someone sticks it to the man, the mindless hippie prole in me gives a shout. I too have no love for Roger Goodell, and wish his legion of owners would open their books if they claim to be losing money hand over fist.

But ... well, for starters I do not hate him, and by golly, I would drain the dragon on him if he was enflamed before me and there was no convenient water supply.

Also, I want there to be football in the fall. Football on time. Right when it seemed like we were closing in on settling the lockout, we seemed to have arrived at a new impasse. This is not the time to be stoking bad blood between the players and the owners. As I understand it, the players were the most recent group to put forth an offer. If Roger Goodell (and the owners by proxy) are bent out of shape over Harrison's seething comments, then they may not shake that feeling off when considering a deal.

Secondly, Harrison has a long, decorated career. He was Defensive MVP of the league just three seasons ago and, well, he can afford to say these kinds of things. He can get away with it. His services will still be sought.

If a practice squad member of the St. Louis Rams or somebody said that, he'd be drummed out of the league. So how nice for James Harrison that he can say terrible things that others cannot.

But then (again with the mixed feelings), I seem to recall a fake Onion op-ed piece a few years ago taking a stance against war protesters. The headline and gist of the spoof editorial was, "These men and women died so you could have freedom of speech! How dare you use it?" Who am I to begrudge James Harrison for having more leeway to speak his mind than others? Would I rather he shut up since other players do not have that leeway? I'm not comfortable answering that question with an unequivocal "yes."

So will all that ambiguity, let me move onto an unambiguously positive story from the NFL. Michael Irvin, who has seen plenty of legal troubles in his past and is a founding member of an (perceived as) unsavory posse of Miami Hurricane football alumni, is an unlikely champion for social justice on an issue where he is at odds with most of his peers. And yet he is.

It takes only a small amount of guts for a retired athlete to come out against homophobia. It takes a HUUUUUUGE amount of guts for an athlete to pose shirtless for a gay magazine cover. It means he has the courage of his convictions, and he is as comfortable as we all should be with the concept of homosexuality.

He has lots of interesting things to say about his gay brother, and the 180 he has done in terms of accepting him. I guess before I didn't really have much of an opinion of Irvin either way. Now I really like him.

For what it's worth, I think the first active athlete in a major team sport (there have been plenty of retired guys to come out) is going to come out very soon, within the next few years. And after that, the proverbial floodgates will be open. As people from Jackie Robinson to Shannon Faulkner have shown us, once someone goes first, everybody becomes very willing to follow.

I'm sort of surprised it hasn't happened already. I do understand that that professional sports is generally quite hostile to gays. Whomever does go first is going to have to go through a tremendous ordeal of stress, trauma, and non-acceptance.

But still, this is 2011. Whichever gay athlete "goes first" is not going to have it as bad as the civil rights champions of the past. I don't think (could definitely be wrong here) he will be physically assaulted, so he just has to be mentally tough enough to handle the attendant adversity.

Two things professional athletes tend to be is mentally strong, and glory hounds. The first openly gay athlete in a major sport is going to become a hero of all-time. He will probably be in high school history books before he dies and stay there for a couple centuries. He must realize this. Isn't one athlete out there narcissistic enough to want this? I never thought we would need more narcissistic athletes.

Comments and Conversation

July 16, 2011


I too look forward to the day we have more openly gay professional athletes. It will change the world as we know it…because the children that look up to the sports “heroes” will also realize that it’s okay to be who you are and to respect those around them with differences, etc. etc.

It will be the first domino in a hopefully, very long string of advancements.

And boo to this dumb lockout. But I’ll give up football for a year before I’ll do anything so desperate and lame as watch Canadian “football.”

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