SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS) – Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m having a hard time getting all worked up about what Chris Culliver said.
I know it’s supposed to be an outrage, but is it really news that someone in the insular world of pro sports would say he’s uncomfortable with the notion of a gay teammate? After all, in the entire history of the Big Four pro sports in North America (football, baseball, basketball, hockey), there has never been one single player whose homosexuality has been public knowledge during his playing career. Not one.
In a society where even the most conservative estimates say there are at least 10 million gay Americans, something doesn’t add up. Either pro athletes are exclusively heterosexual to a statistically improbable degree–or somebody’s been hiding something, and for a very long time.
When the 49ers’ defensive back got into his riff with former Howard Stern sidekick Artie Lange at Super Bowl Media Day, he did so with that as his professional background. And speaking of background, it might be worth taking a few moments to look at Chris Culliver’s.
He is a 24-year-old African-American man who was born in Philadelphia to a teenaged mother. That mother was wounded (and Culliver’s stepfather and a cousin killed) in a barroom fight when Culliver was 8. Culliver eventually graduated from high school in North Carolina and played football at the University of South Carolina.
I mention all of this because it paints a picture. It is always dangerous to generalize, but statistically, Culliver’s background makes it more likely than not that his views on homosexuality will differ significantly from those of, say, a white college-educated Bay Area resident. I’m not just assuming this: there is a wide body of research on attitudes toward homosexuality. As recently as two years ago, the respected Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported 64% of black Americans believed homosexuality was immoral. By comparison, the same survey found 48% of white Americans held the same belief.
There are clearly signs of recent movement on the issue, but deeply-held attitudes and beliefs do not change overnight. Be completely honest with yourself, if you’re a straight person: were you always perfectly OK with the notion of homosexuality? Or did your attitudes evolve as you got to know gay people in your family, circle of friends, or workplace?
Speaking of “evolving” I find it interesting that Culliver used the word “gay” in his comments. 11 years ago, when another 49er, Garrison Hearst, was asked the very same question (“what would you think about having a gay teammate?” is a remarkably common thread when you look into the history of athletes being pilloried for their views on homosexuality), he dropped the homophobic “f-word”. Twice. In 2001, former Giants pitcher Julian Tavarez did the same when referring to the Giants fan who booed him.
Am I approving of what Chris Culliver said? Certainly not. In fact, I think he’s been misled; the odds are pretty decent that, through the course of high school, college and pro football, he has already played with and dressed next to a gay man.
To those who mock his hastily-issued statement of regret as hollow and manufactured, give it a rest. See it as an opportunity to educate one more person, to raise consciousness one more notch. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”
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