Jon Gruden's homophobic slurs about drafting of Michael Sam 'set the conversation back'

By Lila Bromberg

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — During his time in the NFL, with the Patriots from 2006-09 and the Chiefs from 2009-10, former offensive tackle Ryan O'Callaghan says nearly everything in his life revolved around hiding his sexuality.

O'Callaghan assumed that there was no way anyone in the league would accept him as a gay man. It wasn't until after his playing career, in 2011, that he decided he felt comfortable enough to tell general manager Scott Pioli. And once O'Callaghan came out publicly in 2017, Patriots owner Robert Kraft was one of the first people to call him to show support.

"If I knew these things, when I was closeted, that the man signing my paycheck was actually an ally and openly supported me, I think that would have helped a lot," O'Callaghan told The Kansas City Star on Tuesday.

That's part of why reading The New York Times' report Monday night that Jon Gruden sent a series of emails using homophobic, racist and misogynistic slurs was so concerning to O'Callaghan and others, like Cyd Zeigler, a member of the PR team involved in former Missouri football star Michael Sam announcing he was gay.

According to the report, which led to Gruden resigning as the Las Vegas Raiders' head coach later that night, Gruden wrote that league commissioner Roger Goodell should not have pressured then-Rams coach Jeff Fisher to draft (gay players), using a derogatory term to reference Sam. Gruden also referred to Goodell using another homophobic slur, according to The Times.

O'Callaghan and Zeigler said that the emails, sent during a seven year period from 2011-18 while Gruden was working for ESPN as a color analyst on "Monday Night Football," were a disservice to the progress they believe the NFL has made in recent years in terms of inclusion, therefore making fewer players and members of the LGBTQ community feel supported.

In June, Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib announced he was gay, becoming the first active NFL player to come out. Gruden expressed support publicly at the time. Following the report about Gruden's emails, O'Callaghan said he is curious to hear more from Nassib about his experience, and he also hopes to hear more of a genuine message from Gruden in response to the comments he made and whether he has learned from them.

"We have worked really hard to show people that sports are actually an accepting place for LGBTQ people," Zeigler said. "Moments like this set the conversation back. The positive thing is that the response to it from across sports was harsh and swift, and that's what I focus more on, that Carl Nassib still has a job and Jon Gruden doesn't. And that speaks a lot to where the NFL is today."

When O'Callaghan was in the NFL, the act of remaining "deeply closeted" was exhausting. He was using painkillers and even considered suicide. In 2011, then-Chiefs trainer David Price had noticed O'Callaghan was struggling and directed him to talk with Susan Wilson, a UMKC official who had counseled players on drug abuse. Eventually, O'Callaghan decided he could open up to Pioli, who could also tell something was weighing on his mental state.

O'Callaghan said Pioli was "extremely warm and welcoming and understanding and accepting."

Ahead of the 2014 NFL draft, Sam's public relations team approached Zeigler to help them develop a strategy to help Sam come out.

"He wanted to make sure he was drafted by a team that wanted all of him," Zeigler says.

Sam was expected to be drafted in one of the earlier rounds of the draft, but was instead selected by the Rams on the final day. He signed to the team's practice squad, but was eventually cut. He joined the Cowboys practice squad but never playing in a regular-season NFL game. In 2015, Sam announced he was retiring from football.

"The last 12 months have been very difficult for me, to the point where I became concerned with my mental health," Sam wrote on Twitter. "Because of this I am going to step away from the game at this time."

Sam, who has refrained from speaking much publicly in recent years, sent out a few social media posts in response to the reports about Gruden's emails. On Tuesday, Sam retweeted one of his own tweets sent on Oct. 3, expressing his appreciation for Nassib.

Sam also tweeted this directly to the league: "@NFL so are you guys hiring?"

O'Callaghan and Zeigler said they believe progress has been made since Sam came out — at the time, Zeigler wasn't able to legally marry his husband and O'Callaghan still hadn't made a public announcement — but they also acknowledged the need for more active support and initiatives within the league.

Zeigler noted it would go a long way if more NFL players used Cause for Cleats to speak for the LGBTQ community. O'Callaghan said he has met with executives in the NFL several times about how the league can continue progressing, including with Goodell. One initiative O'Callaghan's been pushing for is having the league allow him to speak with players and owners at the rookie symposium.

"Little things like that really add up," O'Callaghan said. "I think players that are closeted see that and understand that the locker room, a team, is a safe space and they're not going to jeopardize their careers just because they're open to being who they really are."

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