If a gay NFL player truly wants to come out of the closet before next season, as reported this week by CBSSports.com's Mike Freeman, he should act soon. The league's offseason essentially ends in mid-May, with the first round of organized team workouts. That leaves about seven weeks for him to brief his team and league management, alert close teammates, make the announcement and take the requisite media tour.
This leap over the biggest remaining social hurdle in sport should be taken before teams gather and get down to the business of football. Anything later risks the most onerous of encroachment infractions.
NFL players, as a group, may or may not be ready to welcome an openly gay teammate. They will not be ready, in 2013 or beyond, for any element of one athlete's personal life to overwhelm the reason they all ended up in the same locker room. The historic leap cannot turn into an epic distraction.
No matter when this happens, the media's appetite will be insatiable. Chances are, Player X understands those expectations and will make careful plans to deal with them. Having decided that he wants to be "the gay Jackie Robinson," he probably won't be relying on a line in the team media guide, where players traditionally list the names of their wives and children, to do the job for him.
He can minimize the ripple effect on his team by quelling mass curiosity before training camp, doing endless talk shows and conference calls, and then setting down strict boundaries about when he will address the subject during the season. The league will have to figure out how to assure that his teammates do not find themselves answering the same questions every time a reporter is in their midst. But this is a complication that the NFL should welcome at this point.
Player X might do the league a service by coming out a few weeks before the draft. Roger Goodell would welcome anything that diverts attention from speculation about the sexuality of Manti Te'o and the "Do you like girls?'' inquisition at the combine.
Other advantages of expediting the closet exit include:
Blocking the paparazzi: History could be told through the lens of a prying camera if, before anyone came out, a tabloid learned of an athlete frequenting a gay bar or vacationing with a partner. The fact that the major U.S. professional team sports have never had an openly gay player makes such a photograph rather valuable. And these days, anyone can play paparazzo. A player who wants this news handled with dignity must keep that in mind.
Available allies: If Player X wants a fellow athlete at his side for TV or radio appearances, the offseason is the best time to tap one of the very vocally supportive NFL players -- Brendon Ayanbadejo, Scott Fujita, Chris Kluwe, Connor Barwin -- as a sidekick. One show, however, has a gay-friendly NFL star already in place. Before he joined "Live With Kelly and Mike,'' ex-Giant Michael Strahan lent his name to the successful campaign for marriage equality in New York.
Domino effect: If one athlete comes out comfortably, others may quickly follow. It's possible that it would happen in other sports. The NHL and NBA will finish their seasons in June. But the ideal for a pioneer from the NFL would be to have one or more of his gay colleagues join him out in the open before the first kickoff of the 2013 season. An April revelation would put down a proper trail for them.
The Charles Factor: No athlete has been as entertainingly supportive of gay rights as Charles Barkley, and he will be on TV almost non-stop through June. He would almost certainly fillet anyone, athlete or fan or commentator, who insulted a gay groundbreaker. This may not seem all that significant, but humiliation by Barkley is a special experience. It would come in the form of a devastatingly memorable quote, enough to make a lot of other haters slink away.
Security: The player who wishes to come out, according to CBSSports.com's Mike Freeman, fears harm from fans more than the locker-room reaction. The NFL, from the public-relations department to security personnel, should already be preparing for a gay player to stop hiding his sexual orientation. But a plan to protect a specific person can't be put into place until the league knows who he is and where he will be throughout the season. Training camps have open practices, which would probably represent the first real danger zone. The camps begin in late July. The sooner a security plan can form, the better.
If Player X has a job for 2013, there is no reason to hold back much longer, assuming he wants to step forward this year. If he is an unsigned free agent, he would have to delay, possibly too long to make history happen as comfortably as possible.
Under the best of circumstances, it won't be easy. But any athlete who takes this leap will already know that. In the end, it should make him stronger and more confident, a better player. Somewhere, right now, he is deciding when and how, for the first time in his life, he will fully exhale.