Saturday, July 27, 2013

Could gay accusation cost Kerry Rhodes NFL job?

The last time NFL free agent safety Kerry Rhodes was asked about his future, he told AL.com earlier in July that he was in the middle of negotiations and a decision on where he would play was coming soon.

"It's in the works," he said. "I can't talk about it in depth but there's a good four teams that I'm looking at. There are ongoing discussions. I'm trying to see which one will be the best fit for me. You will see me, though."

So far, we haven't.

Training camps opened throughout the NFL this week, with all signed veterans arriving by Saturday. Rhodes was not among them.

Maybe it's a negotiating ploy. Maybe Rhodes thinks he can wait until teams evaluate their rosters and possibly get a better deal later. Maybe at 30 he is hoping to skip the rigors of training camp and sign later in preseason.

Or is it possible an accusation that Rhodes is gay is costing him a chance to sign a lucrative contract, perhaps even preventing him from getting a job in the NFL?

To be clear, Rhodes has not come out as gay. But a former business associate has claimed he was in a long-term physical relationship with Rhodes and released pictures to try to prove it. Rhodes has denied the allegation. Perhaps to prove the point, he apparently claimed he might be the father of Kim Kardashian's baby.

As of today, veteran NBA player Jason Collins remains the only professional athlete in a major team sport in the U.S. to come out while still active. Interestingly, right now Collins is a free agent as well.  And so far, he has not been able to secure a contract for next season. Is that because he is gay or because he is a journeyman near or at the end of his career? That remains to be seen.

Rhodes is not a journeyman. He's an eight-year veteran coming off a strong season for the Arizona Cardinals. He started 15 games, recorded four interceptions, two forced fumbles and a sack. As NFL.com pointed out, Rhodes is ranked among the better safeties in the game.

And yet, no team has signed him to date.

Yes, Rhodes, an Associated Press All-Pro second-team pick with the New York Jets in 2006, isn't the only free agent still unsigned. He's one of a few. Maybe it's merely timing.

But it's hard not to wonder. There have been mixed messages from the NFL about acceptance of gay players in its ranks recently. It was only a few months ago that rumors surfaced that as many as four NFL players planned to come out as gay amid the positive support that came from players such as Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ajanbadejo. That didn't happen, and the NFL faced criticism when it was revealed that some teams were asking potential draft picks if they were gay.

If Rhodes does not play, or is forced to accept a minimal offer just to get into a training camp this summer possibly because of an accusation he has denied, that will be a setback for a movement toward acceptance in professional sports that has seen much progress in the past year. And it will say a lot about the NFL.

It will also make a powerful statement to gay players currently in the league or hoping to make it there someday: If you want to play, you better stay in the closet.

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