Earlier this week, an interview with former NFL player Scott Fujita went viral. Fujita claimed that there is a current player in the league who is considering announcing that he is a homosexual. The timing makes sense: This week the Supreme Court has been debating the marriage equality issue. And multiple players have spoken out about accepting gay players in the locker room; there is a common feeling that it is only a matter of time. (In fact, there is a YouTube movement featuring professional and amateur athletes voicing support for the cause.)
So while numerous well-placed league sources have told Fast Company there have not yet been specific plans relayed to them, all agree: Whether it’s this year or next, eventually an NFL player will announce that he’s gay. Or as National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) president Domonique Foxworth suggested this week, a group of players will come out together.
So how would it happen? Experts who spoke to Fast Company said there’s no blueprint: But with enough preparation, understanding of the athlete, and support, it could be a positive world-changing event. Here’s how they would orchestrate it:
In his experience, said Howard Bragman, vice chairman of the image-building company Reputation.com and chairman of Fifteen Minutes Public Relations, who has helped numerous retired athletes and celebrities come out, people want different things from such an announcement. John Amaechi, a former NBA player, was about to go on a book tour and wanted to talk about his story. Others have known that a newspaper or tabloid is about to out them–like a client who had been on a gay cruise with her girlfriend and ran into a reporter–and want to get in front of the story. Some want to be a spokesperson and some just want to continue their lives. “You have to mold it to the person, but temper it with realism,” he said.
After all, points out GLAAD spokesman Aaron McQuade, once an NFL player comes out they will be a pioneer–and the subject of an enormous amount of media attention, perhaps for the rest of their career. He also advises players look at the length of their contracts: Are they stuck with the team for six years to come or set to be free agents by the end of the season (though no contract in the NFL is really guaranteed past each game). Are they superstars or benchwarmers? And are they in a city that is likely to support them or to have more negative reactions than not? None of those factors mean that they shouldn’t come out, but it does change the expectations of the public’s reaction, possible problems along the way, and strategy.
It’s likely the player’s team and agent may already know and be encouraging the player to come forward. But just in case: “You likely want to do it in the off-season,” Bragman notes. “Tell your teammates first, so they feel like they are part of this, and gives them a better chance to come on board.” It’s likely, he notes, that many will speak out on the player’s behalf and the greatest thing to hope for would be a star of the team who is willing to step up. “[You have to] identify teammates who will speak out in defense of that player,” said McQuade. They also recommend having someone who speaks to the player’s team. “There will certainly be a level of education that needs to happen,” he said.
Experts also advised bringing in the player’s agent, publicist, team owner and the league. And of course, the player’s family. The NFLPA, Foxworth said in an interview with Fast Company earlier this week, “would of course stand behind him and support him in any way we can.” It’s very likely the NFL would do the same.
“You have the right for the privacy, you have the right for your dignity, and a lot of it is planning to make sure your email is protected and make sure your phone is protected because people will track you down and paparazzi will follow you,” Bragman said. This is a good idea for most of us.
Want to skip the whole awkward media interview? Amy Jo Martin, founder and CEO of Digital Royalty, advises going the way that Shaq announced retirement or Kevin Durant announced his contract extension: Social media. The athlete can film a video or tweet–and then control their message the whole way. “Social is a way to accelerate the message and keep it in your own words,” Martin said. It also is a great way to hold people who respond inappropriately responsible and a way to show how much a player’s teammates support them. “If they can explain why they’re coming out now and what their life is like in a way that people can better understand them, they’re going to have a better opportunity at gaining support from the public,” she adds. It’s also possible that the athlete can use social to help direct funds to gay-friendly organizations and even spark a hashtag for support.
Something Bragman and McQuade agree on: Pick a reporter the athlete is comfortable with, whether it is on Good Morning America or to the local paper. “Wherever you do it, it’s going to go viral so you want to go where you’re going to get the most favorable hearing and where that person is most comfortable,” Bragman said. McQuade has also referred people to New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, who helped a former Pittsburgh Pirates owner come out last year. Bragman prefers to do one print, one broadcast, and one LGBT publication “out of respect for the community.”
Once a player is out, it’s anyone’s guess exactly what will happen. Bragman advises his clients to learn how to say no to being the grand marshal in every parade and to know which questions they are knowledgable enough to answer in the press. But it’s likely most teammates will be supportive. And one day, it won’t even be that big of a deal anymore. “Frankly,” McQuade said, “People will get over it.”
[Football Field Image: Danny E Hooks via Shuttertstock]