Almost all of us, at some time in our youth, had the experience of saying something that turned out to be way more inappropriate than we thought it was, whereupon people turned to us and said, "Dude. Not cool." In most cases, it concerned something we just hadn't thought that much about, and it often occurs when you move from one milieu to another with different mores and ideas, like going from high school to college. Or existing in a world of football players and suddenly finding yourself quoted in the media on a sociopolitical topic because your team is in the Super Bowl, which is what happened to San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver.
When it happens in your dorm room, someone will explain to you why the joke you made or the term you used was out of line, and you'll probably say, "Huh—I hadn't thought about it that way, but OK." And armed with that knowledge, you'll adapt to your new surroundings and the changing times. But Culliver found himself in hot water when he was on a radio program and got asked if there were any gay players on his team. "We don't have any gay guys on the team," he said. "They gotta get up outta here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff." Culliver was apparently unaware that he plays in San Francisco, and by the next day, his team management had condemned him and forced him to issue a rather amusing apology. "The derogatory comments I made yesterday were a reflection of thoughts in my head, but they are not how I feel," he said. "It has taken me seeing them in print to realize that they are hurtful and ugly. Those discriminating feelings are truly not in my heart. Further, I apologize to those who I have hurt and offended, and I pledge to learn and grow from this experience."
Of course they original comments were a reflection of how he felt. But forgiveness is in order, and I'll bet he does indeed learn and grow from the experience. This is what happens when social values are in transition—it takes people time to catch up and think of things in a new way, and Culliver's experience will be helpful for other people as well. Culliver is only 24 years old, and if he's like most football players who make it to the NFL, he grew up in a hyper-masculinized and homophobic environment where he was treated like a demigod for most of his youth. And now his journey from unthinking homophobe to open-minded 21st century cosmopolitan can be an object lesson to fans.
Similar incidents have happened with athletes before. In 2007, former NBA star Tim Hardaway, possessor of the sweetest crossover dribble in the history of the game (Don't even try to disagree with me on that. Just don't.), made about as unambiguous an expression of homophobia as you can imagine, after former NBA player John Amaechi came out of the closet. "I hate gay people," Hardaway said. "I don't like to be around gay people. I'm homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world for that or in the United States for it. So yeah, I don't like it." After what seemed like a pro forma apology, Hardaway went on to have what looks like a genuine change of heart, even campaigning for equal rights for gays and lesbians. He says that after his initial comments, he got scolded by friends and family, who helped him understand how wrong he was. So now, when you think of Tim Hardaway, you can think of him not as a homophobe, but as someone whom you enjoyed watching display his physical talents. Everybody wins.
Was Hardaway's change sincere, and will Culliver's be? The answer is, it doesn't matter. If it is, good for them. And even if it isn't, their stories will still be an education for their colleagues and for the rest of us.