Gay Ex-NFL Player Kwame Harris Is Right, Being Out and in NFL Are Not Yet Compatible

Candlestick ParkKwame Harris is officially out of the closet in a very public way — but not by his own choice.

After the former San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle got into an altercation with an ex-boyfriend in January, he was forced to confront his sexuality to the public. Harris remained private about the issue until Friday, when he confirmed he is gay in an interview with CNN.

Harris said he always knew he was gay, but chose to keep it secret throughout his football career because he “didn’t see those two things as being compatible.” Harris retired from the NFL in 2008.

The fact that there is another openly gay ex-NFL player is a great thing, but does the media’s witch-hunt coverage of  Harris’ private life truly justify the end result?

There are no active, openly gay athletes in the NFL, but over the past few weeks, conversations have swirled about a current NFL player potentially coming out of the closet in the near future. The report created a firestorm of news and opinions, both positive and negative. It seems, according to the report, that many locker rooms actually feel prepared to embrace a gay teammate.

If the media coverage of Harris is any indication, however, coverage of the “out” player will be disproportionately directed toward continuing to make that player feel like an outsider, even if his peers accept him in the locker room. Openly gay athletes will genuinely help our society progress in the direction of equality, without a doubt. But the fact that the media is making such a spectacle out of  Harris’ situation is a sign that the media itself isn’t ready for an openly gay, active NFL player.

That’s right — it isn’t the NFL fans nor the teammates, but the media that isn’t ready.

This is not to say that gay athletes should stay in the closet, though. It’s sad that Harris felt he would not have been able to handle coming out of the closet publicly while he was in the league, but it’s no surprise that he didn’t after seeing the bright spotlight he’s been put under since his revelation.

The fact that “gay ex-NFL player” is a trending topic on the Internet on Saturday, March 30, 2013, is a sad sign that society is not ready for this.

Media outlets using phrases like, “a former offensive tackle for the 49ers and the Raiders recently admitted to being gay in an interview with CNN,” and, “Suspicions of Harris’ homosexuality first spiked after he was arrested in January after a dispute with a supposed boyfriend,” just bring a negative light to the coverage, as if his being gay was something sneaky to be found out.

If the rumored gay NFL player were to come out of the closet, even privately just to teammates and his organization, media reports would explode. Attention would be placed on that athlete for their entire season (and longer) which could also bring about resentment among teammates. All of that fuss for a person who is just trying to live their life as honestly and openly as they possibly can.

Harris told CNN, “I’m gay and I’m a former athlete and I think I’m a pretty normal guy.”

That sentiment showcases the problem with the media’s lopsided coverage of Harris’ legal issue. Harris’ story could have easily been framed around the domestic violence dispute, as it is for many other professional athletes in heterosexual relationships. Unfortunately, it does happen relatively often. Media reporting usually covers the legal process, but doesn’t follow-up confirming the athlete involved is, in fact, a heterosexual, as the media has with Harris nearly three months later.

It’s unfortunate that such a negative event was the catalyst that forced the revelation of intimate details about Harris’ personal life, when he clearly intended to keep it personal. Equality is a fundamental right for all human beings, but it should be on one’s own terms. In the process of the media trying to make a story out of the fact that an NFL player is gay by spotlighting them and focusing interviews on that topic, they risk ostracizing that individual even more.

Being the first person to do or be any certain thing is sure to garner attention, but until gay equality has become normalized in our society, being out and being in the NFL — a traditionally heteronormative, macho-man sport — will not be compatible.

The issue is not that Kwame Harris is gay. The issue is that the media is making it an issue that he is.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons/Candlestick Park