The apologies arrived at such record speed, they should have been drug-tested.

 

Chris Culliver, a backup 49ers cornerback, made some clownish anti-gay remarks to an even more clownish radio-show host during Super Bowl Media Day. Yahoo reported details the day after. Appalled disapproval soon followed, with damage control on its heels.

 

The 49ers sent out a statement, rejecting the remarks. Culliver issued a semi-coherent apology. His personal PR firm, which describes itself as a "boutique'' specializing in clients from the sports, music and fashion worlds, said: "He pledges to learn from this.''

 

Here's the problem with that: The rest of us need to learn at least as much as he does. The real outrage about his remarks is that they could ever be taken seriously.

Culliver deserves an eye roll more than a wagging finger, pity more than scorn, ridicule 100 times more than anger.

 

Chastise a football player, and he has enemies, opponents, something to fight against. He lives for that stuff. He can bow to public opinion, and see himself as a masterful manipulator, not a weakling.

 

Treat him as pathetic, feeble, a sadly dumb jock who just doesn't know any better, and he will be bereft. Pat him on the head, patronizingly. He will do anything to make it stop.

 

Listening to the podcast from the radio show makes these options seem quite viable.

 

Only 24, Culliver reveals the attitudes of a fossil. He is an adult who talks like a needy adolescent, desperate to please whoever will pay him some attention.

 

Artie Lange, a former Howard Stern cohort, came along when most everyone else at Media Day probably wanted to talk to a starting player. The core of their conversation lasted just 45 seconds. Lange warmed him up by discussing God, and then segued to the truly profound.

 

Lange: Give me an over-under on white chicks this week.
Culliver: On white chicks?
Lange: How many white chicks are you going to bang this week?
Culliver (forcefully): None.
Lange: None?
Culliver: I can't bang no white chicks before the Super Bowl.
(A lot of blathering in the background.)
Lange: You probably do real good with the ladies, I assume.
Culliver: I do real good. I'm cool with the ladies. Hi, ladies.
Lange: What about gay guys? Any of them approach you?
Culliver: Uh, I don't do the gay guys. Man, I don't do that.
Lange: Are there any on the 49ers?
Culliver: Nah, we don't got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up outta here. … Can't be with that sweet stuff.
Lange: Is that true?
Culliver: Yeah, it's true.
Lange: Well, they might be able to play well.
(Some unintelligible babbling) 
Culliver: Nah, can't be in the locker room, nah.
Lange: Ok, so it has to stay … you have to keep it a secret? …
Culliver:   Yeah, come out 10 years later, after that.

 

No one can argue that Lange set Culliver up. The player walked right into this mess, all on his own. But did we really gain any idea of how he feels, how he'd actually treat a gay teammate or whether he might be, you know, protesting too much? Note that when Lange asked if he had been approached by men, Culliver replied: "I don't do the gay guys.'' That wasn't the question.

 

If you just flinched, you experienced homophobia. It doesn't always play out like pure hatred. It's a spectrum of fear, some of it as banal as avoiding the subject. There is nothing wrong with suggesting that a gay athlete would respond to Lange's line of questioning exactly as Culliver did. It's not an accusation. It's one possible explanation, and a pretty compelling argument against taking his comments at face value.

 

Culliver's Twitter account makes another case for not taking him seriously. On Wednesday morning, he posted this comment: "Boy I wake up to a mean txt females in general just be -- well let me just say they be on there PERIOD!! #1 love is mom dudes!!! Period''.

 

The meter on his followers had hit a very strange 994,000-plus before Yahoo reported his comments. It had risen to 1.05 million by Thursday morning. Culliver, or whoever takes charge of the @Cullyinthehouse feed, had six times as many followers as Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers quarterback and the most fascinating young player in this Super Bowl, even though he had issued only twice as many tweets.

 

Chris Kluwe, the ardently pro-gay-marriage punter for the Vikings, noted the extravagant totals immediately and intimated that the backup corner had purchased fake followers.

 

The real lesson of this episode is not that most NFL players are homophobic and hate the idea of sharing a locker room with a gay man. In 2006, Sports Illustrated commissioned a poll of athletes in the four major professional team sports. Of the NFL respondents, 56.9 percent said they would welcome an openly gay teammate, and this was seven years ago, before Kluwe, the Ravens' Brendon Ayanbadejo and the Browns' Scott Fujita had established themselves as outspoken advocates for same-sex marriage. 

 

A month ago, when a Los Angeles Times story quoted the Tigers' Torii Hunter as saying his religion would make him uncomfortable with an openly gay teammate, I emailed Fujita and Ayanbadejo to ask for comment. Both said they knew that resistance remained, but they saw constant, swift improvement. Hunter soon commented via Twitter, saying the story had misrepresented what he said.

 

He has, according to his agents, declined to comment further.

 

If Hunter has a more nuanced view of a teammate coming out of the closet, it would be worth discussing. An athlete's discomfort, if that's all it is, should be addressed, not buried. More than anything, it needs to be addressed honestly as that player's problem, not as an excuse for discrimination against a teammate.

 

Players who reveal their discomfort as hostility need to know that they sit on the wrong side of history now. They're playing for the losers, just like everyone who resisted racial integration. That's why the Culliver damage control moved forward like Usain Bolt.

 

The current commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, has a gay brother. The former commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, has a gay son. Michael Irvin and Michael Strahan have stood up for same-sex marriage. Jim Tressel, the sweater-vested, staunchly Christian former coach for Ohio State, once told a gay-themed magazine that he would support a player leaving the closet because he wanted athletes to be their "authentic selves.''

 

The 49ers' owners, the York family, started visiting gay sports bars after they had persuaded Garrison Hearst to apologize for making homophobic remarks a decade ago. They support a scholarship and mentoring program for San Francisco's Mission High School, and at least one of the fundraisers took place at The Lookout, a prominent gay bar in the Castro. Players came to the event, into the country's best-known gay enclave, revealing no discomfort whatsoever.

 

The 49ers this year became the first in the NFL to sponsor an "It Gets Better'' video, aimed at reassuring teens that they do not deserve to be bullied because they're different. Safety Donte Whitner specifically addresses LGBT adolescents in the video. He said after the filming that he had gay friends and acquaintances, and he felt a responsibility to them.

 

Asked about how difficult it would be for a player to come out of the closet to the public, Whitner conceded that the process would be seen as a distraction in the locker room. But he didn't leave it at that. He believes that teammates should be able to be honest about who they are.

 

"I don't know how you could do it,'' he said. "Maybe if it didn't happen during the season … I don't really know. I have to think about it.''

Acknowledging the complications, and being curious about solutions, seems so much more sincere and well-meaning than any stage-managed apology. Culliver will talk about this again. For PR purposes, he must. What he really needs to do, though, is listen, preferably to a Whitner or Ayanbadejo.

 

He has a lot to learn, indeed. The rest of us have little to learn from him, a professional athlete who said "I can't bang no white chicks before the Super Bowl,'' and quickly relegated it a runner-up on his chart of offenses.