Kicker Alan Gendreau is hoping to make an NFL roster this year. That’s true for a lot of people right now, with the pro football draft coming Thursday followed by weeks of free agent signings and trades and mini-camps and all the things teams go through to cut down to their game day rosters. Since Gendreau is a kicker, and he sat out last year after finishing his career at Middle Tennessee State, it’s not likely you’ll hear his name on ESPN’s live draft broadcast, even in the late rounds when all but the truest diehards have switched over to The Voice or something. Picking a kicker in the NFL draft is like ordering a diet coke at Serendipity. Just not entirely satisfying.
But Gendreau may get a shot as a free agent, especially if some team is really angry at last year’s kicker for missing a game winner here or there. If nothing else, team GM’s seem to like to bring on a second kicker during tryouts, if only to make the existing one more neurotic than they are already. And if Gendreau does somehow make it to a game day roster, he’ll be more than a line in a game program. He’ll be a footnote to history. That’s because Gendreau would be the first openly gay person on an NFL roster.
Whether or not Gendreau does make the league, and it’s probably a long shot, most predict that an openly gay pro football player will happen soon, whether it’s this year or a bit further down the line. There’s ongoing rumor of players planning to come out, although more people think the first openly gay NFL athlete will enter the league with that distinction, not add it from the confines of a team locker room. That suggests American high schools and universities have become safe places for openly gay male athletes, which is probably true in some places and certainly not in others.
The NFL, for its part, has become aware of this impending reality. And like any good business that operates in the pubic space, they’ve tried to get their PR machine ahead of it. That meant this week that through a deal with NY District Attorney Eric Schneiderman, the NFL will promote a “culture of inclusion” for gay athletes. This involves seminars and training in pre-season meetings and posters hanging in team locker rooms highlighting the league’s anti-discrimination policy. Much of this comes in the wake of rumors that teams were asking prospective draft picks about their sexual orientation, something that violates the legal, moral, and logical. This new policy should at least prevent that. Whether it goes further to change the culture of the league, and perhaps the sport at large is yet to be seen.
But we should make a couple of notes on this noteworthy precedent that the NFL is trying to keep quiet, for risk they become something of a political stakeholder. First, it remains to be seen whether this new process is an actual game changer, if you will, or simply another page in the employee handbook. You know, in pretty much every restaurant in the country, there’s signs all around about food safety and hand washing and all that. And every year, someone comes down with salmonella because people were storing eggs at beach temperature. Step one is policy, but the larger leap, if you will, is enforcing this culture of acceptance, which sounds like a New York State school mandate or something. But that means owners and veterans and coaches actually standing up for players who might eventually come out publicly.
Second, and to the point of the NFL, the league has been something of a target for critique over the past decade. And in many cases, rightfully so. They get it for violence, for labor unrest, concussions, patriarchy, and all the things that make people think football is one step from the Stone Age. But it should be noted that the NFL was the first league to enforce a minority interview policy with the Rooney Rule. And now it’s creating a strict anti-discrimination policy towards sexual orientation, which we all know is not the easiest public announcement for a league that prides itself on packaged testosterone. Perhaps it’s time to give the NFL credit for realizing the world changes, and they need to change with it. All those predicting the end of football in 25 years should consider that in their prognosis.
That’s good news for longshot kicker Alan Gendreau. At least now, he’s got a real shot.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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