Fujita speaks up about openly gay NFL players
MAR 05, 2013 1:14p ET
Accepting an openly gay player in NFL locker rooms isn't just a nice thing to Scott Fujita.
"It would legitimately save lives," the veteran linebacker said Monday in a lengthy phone interview.
Fujita tells of a woman who approached him at a GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Awards banquet and told the story of her younger brother. He played high school football, was gay and kept it a secret. He was a good player, but when he finally admitted his sexuality it did not go over well with his family.
His father used all the typical negative, inflammatory and insulting words to describe him.
“Hurtful words," Fujita said. “The son ended up taking his own life.”
Fujita remembers tearing up hearing the story.
"She told us, ‘He is why it's important for guys like you and some of your colleagues in the NFL to speak out about this,’” Fujita said.
Fujita, an 11-year veteran who spent the last three years with the Browns, discussed an issue that has become a flashpoint of sorts these past months. During the season Browns linebacker Tank Carder included a gay slur on Twitter, for which he apologized. San Francisco defensive back Chris Culliver made news at the Super Bowl when he said he wouldn't accept a gay teammate, for which he apologized. College players also reportedly said they were asked about their sexuality in roundabout ways ("Do you like girls?") at the NFL Scouting Combine.
NFL teams asking would be a violation of Federal law. Choosing a player based on sexuality would as well.
“Like all employers, our teams are expected to follow applicable federal, state and local employment laws,” NFL Senior Vice President for Public Relations Greg Aiello said. “It is league policy to neither consider nor inquire about sexual orientation in the hiring process. In addition, there are specific protections in our collective bargaining agreement with the players that prohibit discrimination against any player, including on the basis of sexual orientation.”
Fujita did not want to discuss the Combine situation because he wasn't there, and he never appreciated how he was judged during the league’s Bounty-gate scandal when he was wrongly implicated. But he supports the league’s position and says it’s incumbent on the NFL to define what is not acceptable.
Fujita feels passionately that "it's time" to get past any issue with a gay player.
"You can believe whatever you want to believe at home or at church," he said, "but that does not give you the right to discriminate in the workplace. In the workplace we're all equal. Everyone should be comfortable to be who they are."
What’s key is that the locker room is a workplace; it’s the NFL player’s office. Former Browns coach and Miami Dolphins linebacker Bryan Cox once sued the league when fans threw things at him as he walked on the field in Buffalo. His suit charged his workplace was not made safe, and he won.
“I don’t see derogatory words being tolerated in the general workplace,” Fujita said. “I don’t see it accepted in the general workplace as it is in the NFL locker room.”
The locker room is a macho place overflowing with testosterone. Putdowns are common, and sometimes personal. Players joke that they spend more time with teammates than their wives, and it's true. Past perception and stereotyping might indicate that a gay player might not seem to fit in that world.
And when he said last week on 92.3-The Fan that he believed the majority of players would accept an openly gay teammate without reservation, his Twitter timeline broke into a discussion of the issue. There was some sniping, but also some honest discussion.
"I believe the overwhelming majority (of players) are fine with it, are comfortable with a gay teammate," he said. "The ones that aren't better change quickly because times are changing."
This is not a new discussion for Fujita. He's been advocating for marriage equality since 2007.
"Back then nobody wanted to have the conversation with me," he said.
In 2009, his endorsement of the issue earned headlines in New Orleans, with people asking why a football player would be talking about gay issues and marriage equality.
"Nobody knew how to talk about it, and the media was uncomfortable asking about it," he said.
When he got to the Super Bowl in 2010 he met with gay advocacy groups. Three years later, he said "people are talking about this every single day” and “it's good to see people opening their minds."
He also understands that changing the outlook might rely on changing the locker room culture.
“Football is a tough man’s game,” he said. “It will always be that. But I don’t think players in this league are meatheads. I think we’re more sympathetic and sensitive than we get credit for.”
He is working with a web site called athleteally.org that asks athletes to register and pledge that they will “respect and welcome all persons, regardless of their perceived or actual sexual orientation.” As of Tuesday morning, 11,357 had taken the pledge, including an Australian rugby player and Dan Grunfeld, who is playing basketball in Israel. Grunfeld is the son of Ernie Grunfeld, a former player and longtime NBA executive.
Fujita said his stance comes from “a common sense of fairness.” His father was born in a relocation camp during World War II, a time when US citizens of Japanese heritage were moved into detention centers.
“Nobody spoke for him and his family,” Fujita said. “No one taught about Japanese internment camps in school either. That was a component of prejudice and discrimination that always fired me up.
“I think being adopted was a huge part of it too.”
He remembered reading in Arkansas about a proposed single-parent adoption plan, and was angry because he felt it was targeted toward gays and it meant people like him might have had to stay in a foster home rather than join a loving family.
“There is no reason,” he said, “anyone should not feel comfortable with who they are.”
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