Commentary

Chris Culliver backpedals

Comments, apology, lack of understanding, even as others fight discrimination

Updated: January 31, 2013, 5:28 PM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

OK, let's be real.

We all know Chris Culliver didn't really apologize for the offensive remarks he made in a radio interview during Super Bowl media day. True, his name was attached to the statement the San Francisco 49ers released, and he reiterated it Thursday, but we've seen this dance before.

An athlete, speaking in vernacular, makes a series of offensive comments -- in Culliver's case, about gay people -- and then, after the public outrage, issues an apology sounding like Winston Churchill. The whole thing reeks of someone who either was told what to do or is more sorry he is in trouble than he is sorry for the actions that got him there.

Culliver's personal PR rep, Theodore Palmer, told The Associated Press that "Chris is very apologetic for any harm caused to anyone."

[+] EnlargeChris Culliver
Michael Zagaris/Getty ImagesChris Culliver shared homophobic thoughts about what type of teammates he wants, then backpedaled.

If Culliver was bold enough to say "we ain't got no gay people on the team" to a radio host, if he was bold enough to say "they gotta get up out of here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff … Nah, can't be … in the locker room, man," he should be bold enough to talk about why he doesn't really feel that way and how, according to Palmer, "it was interpreted wrong." It's hard to accept "that's not what I feel in my heart" a day later when it was what first came out of his mouth.

Now the NFL in general and the 49ers in particular have made a lot of progress in moving away from the homophobia that was once endemic to football's culture. It's difficult to paint a league that has a clause banning discrimination based upon sexual orientation in its collective bargaining agreement as one full of homophobes. But no amount of policy is going to rid the league of negative comments about gay people any more than government can legislate away racism.

That kind of cultural shift can be initiated on paper but is only effective when it is accompanied by a change of heart.

We're seeing some of that change with the participation of teams in the It Gets Better Project and the willingness of players to join Athlete Ally, a group on whose board I sit. Along with athletes from other sports, Scott Fujita, Chris Kluwe, Brendon Ayanbadejo and Connor Barwin have spoken openly against discrimination.

As a further argument against the mentality Culliver initially expressed, consider this: Kwame Harris, a onetime tackle for the 49ers and Raiders, was in court earlier this week to plead not guilty to felony domestic violence and assault charges.

The 2003 first-rounder -- who is listed in news stories at 6-foot-7, 240 pounds -- is accused of pinning his 6-1, 220-pound former boyfriend against a plate glass window and repeatedly punching him in the face so hard that the ex needed surgery and a metal plate.

Why?

Allegedly because Harris' ex tried to pour soy sauce on his food.

Oh, and he may have stolen a pair of underwear.

Now there are a lot of terms that come to mind when describing the allegations surrounding Harris, who is gay, but it's hard to imagine "sweet stuff" being one of them.

This issue of gays in sports, gay men in the locker room, etc., is not about saying the right thing, or having a prettily worded statement issued when someone says the wrong thing. It's about athletes mistakenly linking manhood with sexual orientation. Mistaken conceptions of manhood are how you end up with a league in which 21 of the 32 teams have had at least one player charged with domestic violence or sexual assault in 2012 alone.

They are how you get a league that is marketed as the epitome of masculinity peppered with athletes who don't take care of their kids.

I can understand Culliver not wanting soft teammates -- which is what I'm assuming he meant by "sweet stuff" -- but being a gay man doesn't inherently mean a person is soft any more than being a straight man means a person is tough. Or any more than being a man makes you tough.

What defines a guy's manhood isn't his capacity to bully but his willingness to take responsibility for his actions, how he responds in moments of conflict, a show of courage under fire. Hiding behind statements co-authored by other people might help an athlete avoid suspensions and fines, but it also reveals a guy who shrinks in the moment.

That's what strikes me most about the Culliver controversy.

Not that he made homophobic remarks -- that happens -- but that, on his sport's biggest stage, he decided to be so freaking small.

LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine