The Super Bowl is coming up, and the makeup of football culture as well as the power of athletes has been revealing as members of each lineup do press interviews promoting the game. “I don’t do the gay guys, man,” Chris Culliver, a cornerback for the 49ers told media as he promoted 49ers playing in the upcoming New Orleans Super Bowl. “I don’t do that.”
He followed the comments with: “No, we don’t got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up out of here if they do.”
It’s clear that Culliver’s homophobia is not condoned by his teammates or officials of the NFL. Culliver’s remarks stand in stark contrast to one of his opponents in the Super Bowl, the Baltimore Ravens’ lineback Brendon Ayanbadejo, who is using the Super Bowl as a platform to speak out about gay marriage and anti-bullying. The 49ers, one of the first NFL teams to participate in the It Gets Better Project, has issued a statement condemning Culliver’s remarks, saying that “There is no place for discrimination within our organization at any level. We have and always will proudly support the LGBT community.”
However, Culliver has not faced any real penalties for his comments, and the idea of him being suspended or barred from the Super Bowl for his homophobic remarks seems laughable. Coach Jim Harbaugh had a private discussion with the cornerback, and told press: "There's not malice in his heart. He's not an ugly person. He's not a discriminatory person. I really believe that this is something that he'll learn and grow from.” Teammate Patrick Willis further defended Culliver, arguing, “he’s just a young kid.”
It’s clear that Culliver’s remarks, while homophobic and disrespectful, were not particularly thought-out (unlike Tennessee’s equally homophobic and devastating policy proposal also in the news this week,) nor were they in line with the official perspective of the 49ers or the NFL as a whole. However, Culliver’s remarks bring to light the power we give athletes, particularly football players, to marginalize others without repercussions. Harbaugh gave Culliver a stern talking to, but it is unlikely he will face significant penalties beyond that.
Many NFL players have expressed their support for the LGBT community in opposition to Culliver’s comments. Wade Davis recently told press that he knows gay members of the NFL who are unable to come out because of the stigma in the league, “because it’s such a male sport, so testosterone driven.”
The defense and relatively few consequences for Culliver’s actions bring to mind the Steubenville case, in reaction if not in deed. Steubenville, where two members of the school’s football team were indicted for rape of a minor, and many school officials are now facing allegations that they covered up the incident to protect the athletes. I don’t mean to undermine the gravity of the Steubenville case by comparing Culliver’s ignorant, but not unconscionable action to those on trial, but rather, to call to attention the pedestal of an athlete, and how that pedestal affords one great lenience in the marginalization of others.
Do we give athletes too much power? Do the consequences appropriate for an action change based on a player’s value to a team? Culliver’s case may not provide an answer, but as society changes, and perhaps the NFL and sports in general make room for more diverse voices and faces, we will continue to ask the question.