When I first heard about Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple's experience at the NFL combine, I couldn't help but laugh.
Apple claimed that during an interview with the Atlanta Falcons, the first question that came from one of the team's assistant coaches was, "Do you like men?"
As a 29-year-old gay man, I spent the better part of two decades agonizing over that question and finally, when I was 20, came to accept that the answer was "Yes." It took another two years before I could tell my family, another year after that before I mustered up the courage to tell my closest friends and, well, six years after that to finally write about it in the Chicago Tribune.
I spent years and a lot of sleepless nights admitting to myself and others that I was gay. It was not an easy process.
For the record, Apple said he is not gay, but it never should have come to the point where he had to reveal anything about his sexuality. The NFL has taken some commendable action in working with organizations like the You Can Play Project, which provides resources to LGBTQ athletes and is working to change attitudes toward them in locker rooms across the country. But the episode at the combine during Apple's interview was disgraceful and illuminates just how far the NFL has to go before its culture embraces an openly gay player. It is still a league where being gay is seen as negative.
Apple said the assistant, Marquand Manuel, insinuated that in Atlanta, there are a lot of gay men and Apple has to be okay with that.
Apple said: "(He) was like, 'If you're going to come to Atlanta, sometimes that's how it is around here, you're going to have to get used to it.' "
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Apple may not have been the only one asked this question. If you read between the lines, the assistant is essentially saying, "Hey, if we pick you, you're going to live in Atlanta and you might be out somewhere and get hit on by a gay guy. You're okay with that, right? But you're also not going to go home with him, right?"
But whatever the assistant's intention, it's a remarkably awkward and obtuse way to begin a conversation.
It's also a dangerous line of thinking. It is clear that the assistant thinks being gay is a negative thing, something he must guard against, and that associating with gay men is a fact of life in Atlanta, but it is something the assistant is telling players they must deal with, like it's a burden.
LGBTQ rights in this country have come a long way, but one of the final frontiers in that fight is for inclusion in sports, especially in the major pro leagues where less than a handful of athletes — former NBA player Jason Collins and defensive lineman Michael Sam — have donned a jersey as openly gay men even though statistics suggest there are several gay, bisexual or questioning men playing professional sports. Gay-rights activists have fought to dismiss the stereotype that gay men are not considered masculine enough to play sports on a pro level. So when the issue of whether or not a player is gay is treated with such nonchalance and insensitivity as the Falcons did with Apple, it illustrates just how far the NFL still has to go before diminishing this stereotype and making a gay athlete comfortable enough to come out.
It's already hard enough for a gay athlete to accept himself, and I had hope that after Sam came out such a sea change would come over the NFL and it would gradually open its arms to having gay players on the field.
But that day is still off in the distance.
— Chicago Tribune (TNS)