The macho culture of the NFL hasn’t been noted for being welcoming to gay players in the past.
But that may be changing.
When retired offensive lineman Ryan O’Callaghan told Outsports that he is gay this week, he was only the 11th NFL player to publicly come out according to the website. Only Michael Sam did it as an active player.
O’Callaghan hid the fact he is gay so well that nobody knew it, not anybody in the NFL or even his family. Not even his mother.
In fact, playing in the NFL was one of the ways he hid it. And he planned to commit suicide once his playing days were over because he was so conflicted that he didn’t feel he could live openly as a gay man.
As it turned out, O’Callaghan probably had his life saved by officials for the Chiefs.
After his playing days ended early because of injuries, he started abusing prescription pain-killers.
He was working out with the Chiefs in 2012 hoping for one more chance when the team’s head athletic trainer, David Price, noted he wasn’t himself and was suddenly acting erratically.
He recommended he see Susan Wilson, a clinical psychologist who worked with the Chiefs and the NFL counseling players on drug abuse.
After months and countless hours of conversation after their first meeting, she became the first person O’Callaghan told that he was gay.
But he was still planning to commit suicide until she came up with an idea. She told him why not come out to family and friends to find out their reaction and then choose whether to end his life.
One of the first persons he told was Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli. He set up a meeting and gave Pioli the idea he had done something terrible.
When they met, he told Pioli he had overcome his addiction with Wilson’s help. Then he said he was gay.
Pioli gave him immediate support and then said, “So what’s the problem you wanted to talk to me about?’’
O’Callaghan didn’t know Pioli had many gay people in his life and wasn’t fazed by O’Callaghan telling him he was gay. Pioli had even counseled other NFL gay players.
Pioli, who had been Bill Belichick’s top aide on New England’s first three Super Bowl teams, had a controversial tenure in Kansas City and was fired after the 2012 season. But his reaction to O’Callaghan’s news was pitch perfect.
As O’Callaghan came out to friends and family, he was generally supported at some level.
They knew him being openly gay was better than the alternative.
“They were just happy I was alive,’’ he said.
O’Callaghan, who also played for the Patriots during his six-year career, is now is a much better place. He got a positive reaction when he told Cal teammate Aaron Rodgers and Chiefs’ teammate Dustin Colquitt.
He says he hopes that sharing his story will open the door to communicating with others struggling in the LGBT community.
“As long as there are people killing themselves because they are gay, there’s a reason for people like me to share my story and try to help,’’ he said.
But coming out was probably just the first step for O’Callaghan.
Robert Rigo, a gay man, wrote in the New York Times earlier this week that, “There is nearly 15 years of emotional trauma that Mr. O’Callaghan, and many other L.G.B.T. folks must spend time coming to terms with.’’
Meanwhile, progress does seem to be continuing in the NFL.
O’Callaghan also said he never heard an NFL player use a gay slur in the locker room. He was only uncomfortable when they constantly talked about women because he was afraid that if he joined in, he would seem out of place. He also drank a lot of coffee to avoid showering with other players.
And O’Callaghan said Wednesday on The Dan Patrick Show that he thinks that NFL players would accept an openly gay player.
“I’m pretty positive now that teams would accept a gay player,’’ he said.
There are obvious gay players currently in the NFL who have decided not to come out.
O’Callaghan’s experience may help convince them the NFL has become more welcoming to gays.