San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver (29) at a press conference at the Marriott New Orleans in advance of Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
The following is an opinion column by WUSA 9 Sports Anchor Dave Owens.
WASHINGTON (WUSA) -- It was one of the few moments of significance at this year's annual Super Bowl Media Day. As thousands of reporters chased down players and coaches, both known and obscure, a little-known defensive back, Chris Culliver, uttered words that caused eyebrows to raise and furl at the same time.
The second-year player said he would not accept a homosexual teammate and added that if the 49ers had any homosexual players, they should leave.
The predictable reaction ensued: reprimand from the team, an apology from the player, a goodwill PR tour to appease Gay Rights groups. Typical. But for all of the negative reaction Culliver received, I, for one, believe the moment served a very important purpose and in a way, I am glad he said it.
You heard me correctly, AM GLAD HE SAID IT. Why? Homophobia, like many other ignorant-based beliefs often isn't addressed until it absolutely has to be. Moreover, it sometimes takes an overt incident like Culliver's Media Day statements to pop the cork on the conversation. It's an uncomfortable topic that many would rather avoid, but I strongly assert that only through substantive discussions of topics like this do education, and hopefully, growth and change, occur.
The NFL's ultra machismo culture is an incubator for those who think like Culliver. An environment which predisposes one to believe that a person's sexual orientation somehow affects his ability to knock the living you-know-what out of an opponent on game day. Furthermore, that same homosexual player will surely be gazing at teammates in the locker room afterwards, right? Wrong!
Kimberly Davis, a 2008 Scripps Howard Fellow and Adjunct Instructor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism for the University of Maryland, believes the genesis of this type of homophobia comes from the culture of heteronormativity that is prevalent in sports culture, in general.
"The idea that being heterosexual is normal and everything else is not normal permeates sports, particularly team sports. By the same token, sports culture is just a microcosm of our larger culture, where people who identify as LGBTQ are still and unfortunately stigmatized. Moreover, in men's team sports and sports media, there is a culture of masculinity that is shaped by these same ideas. The same is true, in some cases, in women's sports regarding what is said to be feminine," said Davis.
But sports culture is not alone in this. As a member of the United States military for six years, I often heard and was involved in discussions on the topic of gays in the ranks. The default response, especially amongst the guys was typically "no way, I don't want him sleeping next to me. He might try something."
Where does that sort of thinking come from? Davis believes media portrayals may be partially to blame:
"Media is a reflection of and at the same time constructs reality. We get our ideas about people, places and things that we have not fully encountered from media portrayals so, yes, I believe that media perceptions do play a role in some people's beliefs. Even in a culture where being LGBTQ is more accepted, the portrayals of sexual identities that are different than heterosexual are still largely stereotypical. Gay automatically means feminine and Lesbian automatically means masculine. Very rarely are these stereotypes telling the full story of these sexual identities."
So while that sailor might not have wanted a gay shipmate sleeping next to him, odds are, a gay sailor probably was sleeping next to or near him the entire time and simply went about his business just like everybody else. Thorough and compassionate analysis eventually won out amongst military leadership. Athletes like Culliver could learn a thing or two from them. Attempting to correlate personal preferences to job performance is difficult calculus and in some cases impossible.
But we should be pleased Culliver had the guts to speak his mind on Media Day Tuesday. Society has always needed people like him to foster change. In 1987, then-Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis told Ted Koppel on Nightline: "I truly believe that African-Americans may not have some of the necessities to be a field manager or perhaps a general manager." He then continued by attempting to make a connection to the lack of African-American catchers, pitchers or quarterbacks and the fact that those positions were thinking positions. Wow, a professional General Manager of one of the most storied franchises said that! Imagine what Twitter would have done with that verbal bombshell had it existed 25 years ago. But as ugly of a statement as it was, it served a purpose. It helped expose covert racist thinking amongst high ranking managers in a professional sport. Some would argue that racism still exists today in the form of the paucity of minority head coaches in the NFL.
Throughout history, numerous other examples of verbal ignorance abounds: women are not fit to serve in combat roles; different races should not intermarry; women should not officiate men's sports, etc. They were all dumb statements that before they could be addressed, needed someone to utter it publicly. Add Culliver's to the list. Unfortunately, it's probably safe to assume there are other players, staff and front office personnel who carry around these feelings or similar beliefs.
This is why analysis of Culliver's statement is important. That little known 49ers defensive back gave us an up close view of ignorance. Great! Now at least we know what we're dealing with. Hopefully it inspires us to teach our daughters, sons, nieces, and nephews to be better or really, less ignorant. Because it would really be a shame if in a decade or so, my 12-year old nephew did an interview at Super Bowl Media Day and spouted the same garbage that Culliver did. In my opinion if he did, it would represent a failure on behalf of the village responsible for raising him the right way.