On New Year's Eve, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers gave an interview to ESPN-540 Milwaukee in which he affirmed, for those who had been wondering, that he "really, really likes women." He said it with the gumption and authority of a man belting out a play call at the line of scrimmage. "45! 51! REALLY! REALLY! LIKES WOMEN! HIKE!"
For those who thought to require such confirmation, perhaps an explanation is in order. A couple of weeks ago, a site called The Fame Driven published a speculative post -- relying mostly on Tweets from Rodgers' male personal assistant -- wondering if Rodgers was "involved" with that assistant and recently had a falling out. Few had heard of The Fame Driven before this story -- its servers consistently crashed over the weekend once larger sites picked up on it -- and it is worth noting that the story was so inelegantly written that it actually contains the phrases "BOMBOCLAT!" and "We just can't with this notion!" within the text. (Sorry: "Text.") Even though the story had gotten far enough along that Deadspin said it called around about it (and found nothing that pointed toward substantiation), roughly 99.999 percent of the sports world hadn't heard a thing about gay rumors involving Aaron Rodgers until Rodgers brought them up to deny them during his regular ESPN Milwaukee chat.
There are few sports stories more inherently irresistible to sports media than a gay athlete story. It is that rare sports story that is completely sordid and juicy and page-clicky but also can be couched, often disingenuously, in entirely good intentions. Every normal person knows that with the number of professional athletes there are, using simple math, there are dozens, if not scores, of active gay athletes playing today. That none of them are doing so openly is a sad commentary on the world of sports and a bottomless fountain of unfounded rumors. Every journalist knows that the first Major Gay Athlete is a massive story, so they can't resist. The minute Rodgers made his comments, everyone picked up on it, because then you can talk about it, then you can get all the tongues wagging and insulate yourself from criticism that you're just rumormongering. Hey, he brought it up. And implicit in every story: Boy, Rodgers sure is protesting a lot, isn't he?
This sort of half-assed outing -- which is not even outing; it's basically outing a straight person? -- is even worse than actual outing, a practice most (if not all) of the gay community wants nothing to do with. (Here's Andrew Sullivan in The New Republic in 2004, and Rachel Maddow has a helpful Three Basic Beliefs On The Ethics Of Coming Out that seem completely sensible and human to this straight guy.) You saw this in Hollywood for decades, the whispers, the hints -- though there seems to be less of it today, as it's more and more clear that the general public just doesn't care. As George Clooney put it, when asked to comment on rumors about himself, "I'm not going to let anyone make it seem like being gay is a bad thing. My private life is private, and I'm very happy in it. Who does it hurt if someone thinks I'm gay? I'll be long dead and there will still be people who say I was gay. I don't give a s---."
But George Clooney works in Hollywood, and Aaron Rodgers works in sports. If fellow actors think George Clooney is gay, he wins another Oscar. If the sports world (players, coaches, media, fans) thinks Aaron Rodgers is gay, his entire planet explodes.
Whenever an athlete is accused of being gay -- or even lightly rumored -- they tend to fall all over themselves asserting their heterosexuality. Mike Piazza, most famously, called a press conference to let the entire New York City beat reporter corps know that he dated women. Manti Te'o, when his deceptions about his fake dead girlfriend were revealed, was double-plus emphatic when asked by Katie Couric whether he was gay. Far from it. FAR from it!
And now there's Rodgers, who made sure he got an extra "really" in there to shoot down a rumor that he himself had just brought up. It is not enough for an athlete to say that he is not gay. He must make it absolutely clear -- to the guys in the locker room, to the radio bro interviewing him, to all the fans at Lambeau -- that it's the most absurd thing he's ever come across. That him being gay would cut the fabric of space and time. That the question would even come up is embarrassing to the very notion of questions, or words, or thoughts. The logical extension of one of these answers is for a player to say, "Look, if I could have sex with a woman in front of you right now just to show you, I would. I'll probably have sex with a woman the minute I'm away from you people. I wish I didn't have to answer these questions right now, not because I don't want to, but because it takes me away from my true passion, which is having sex with women. These are five minutes I could have spent having sex with a woman. Five minutes I can't get back."
The number of things that Aaron Rodgers could have been accused of by a random website that he wouldn't have felt compelled to comment on are too numerous to list. But this, this he felt like he had to clarify. In a chest-thumping, lookit, lookit, way. This had to be dealt with.
Every year, someone (sometimes me) says this is the year we finally have an openly gay athlete, that the last closet is finally opened. And every year they're wrong. It honestly feels like we're getting further away. When I originally conceived this column, I imagined putting together a fake press release for athletes "accused" of being gay that would be similar to what Clooney said, that it doesn't matter, that the very question itself sets back progress. But no athlete's doing that, not today. Rodgers, depressingly, might have handled this exactly right. In an age of Jason Collins not finding a job and gay rumors potentially blackballing an NFL player from the league, it feels even riskier for an athlete to be out today than it did two years ago. The anticipation and the speculation has led to a backlash. The calls for sports to open up are making them more tight-knit and closed. People keep saying it's getting better in professional sports. I'm not seeing it.
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