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Gay athletes: The corrosive impact of Adrian Peterson's remarks

May 29, 2013|By Daniel Rothberg
  • Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson shared his feelings about same-sex marriage in a recent interview.
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson shared his feelings about… (Carlos Gonzalez / MCT )

It’s 2013, and finally the public is beginning to acknowledge that, believe it or not, there are gay athletes who, believe it or not, compete in major professional sports.

And that’s a great thing.

When NBA center Jason Collins made headlines last month as the first male athlete to come out in a major professional sport, it seemed that everyone from LeBron James to Barack Obama wanted to offer the Washington Wizards player words of admiration. But even the support of Lil Wayne and Bill Clinton cannot hide an important reality -- from collegiate to professional play, gay athletes still face an uphill battle.

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During an interview on Sirius/XM NFL Radio on Sunday, Minnesota Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson said that despite his love for gay relatives, he does not believe in same-sex marriage. (On Aug. 1, same-sex marriage will be legal in Minnesota.) This came on the same day the L.A. Galaxy’s Robbie Rogers made headlines in his own right as the first openly gay male athlete to participate in a major professional U.S. league.

“To each his own. I'm not with it,” Peterson said when asked about Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, a gay rights advocate who was recently released from the team. “I have relatives who are gay. I'm not biased toward them. I still treat them the same. I love 'em. But again, I'm not with that. That's not something I believe in. But to each his own.” Peterson went on to say that he doesn’t think the Vikings released Kluwe because of his social views.

Peterson’s comments are hardly close to the nastiest thing a professional athlete or coach has said about the gay community. After all, he’s no Mike Rice, the ousted Rutgers basketball coach who shouted homophobic slurs at his players.

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Still, if Peterson cares about the gay relatives (and presumably his fellow professional athletes too) whom he purports to love and respect, he might want to think twice the next time he opens his mouth.

In a story I reported this year about gay athletes at USC, experts and players agreed­ ­-- almost without exception -- on one thing: straight athletes and coaches can play a tremendous role in defining the environment for gay teammates. Straight players and coaches who expressly state their acceptance of a gay teammate or the possibility of one create a more comfortable environment, one that gay athletes said can even lead to improved performances. This is especially true when the message is delivered by players who serve as leaders and coaches who serve as role models.

Peterson is entitled to his own opinions, and he has a right to broadcast them freely. And although coming out against gay marriage is different from screaming a homophobic epithet, it still can have a chilling effect on the environment of a team.

As the NFL’s Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year in 2012, Peterson stands on a larger soapbox than many other athletes do. His comments serve as a reminder that, even though gay athletes have received much recent press and praise, what straight players say matters too and -- sometimes, perhaps even more.

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Twitter: @danielrothberg

daniel.rothberg@latimes.com

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