WASHINGTON -- NFL wide receiver Donté Stallworth has joined Athlete Ally, a group dedicated to fighting homophobia in sports. His announcement comes as speculation has picked up in the sports world that a professional football player may come out of the closet, and the LGBT community is working to make sure he will have a solid support system in place if he does.
Stallworth is currently a free agent and has played for several NFL teams, including the Baltimore Ravens, Washington Redskins and New England Patriots. His decision to fight for gay rights was inspired in part by his brush with death last month, when he and his girlfriend were nearly killed in a hot air balloon accident.
"That made me more willing to [get involved] now as opposed to sticking my toe in and seeing what happens," Stallworth told The Huffington Post in an interview Wednesday. "After that situation where I literally almost lost my life, I came to the understanding and the realization that life is really short, and while you're here, you need to love and respect the people who love and respect you."
Stallworth has also tweeted in support of marriage equality in the past.
Brendon Ayanbadejo, who was recently cut from the Baltimore Ravens, is the chairman of Athlete Ally's advisory board. NFL players Scott Fujita and Chris Kluwe are also in the group, along with scores of other athletes and coaches.
Stallworth said that Ayanbadejo -- or "B.A." as he calls him -- was a big reason he signed on to the anti-homophobia fight. Their friendship began when they played on the Ravens together in 2010.
"I think it's important for us as professional athletes not only to set the tone in our own respective fields, but also for the kids who are watching our programs or our sports," he said. "If you isolate a child and teach them hate, hate, hate, that's the way they're going to grow up. ... And unfortunately, that's the environment that I grew up in. There was a lot of disrespect for gays. I unfortunately was a part of that. But as I got older, I became more ashamed of that and more open to rights for all."
Athlete Ally Executive Director Hudson Taylor announced on Wednesday that Mixed Martial Arts fighter Rashad Evans had joined the group as well.
Speculation about the possibility of an NFL player coming out picked up in recent weeks after a report by Mike Freeman of CBS Sports.
"Based on interviews over the past several weeks with current and former players, I'm told that a current gay NFL player is strongly considering coming out publicly within the next few months -- and after doing so, the player would attempt to continue his career," wrote Freeman.
Ayanbadejo also recently told the Baltimore Sun that as many as four players could come out at one time.
"I think it will happen sooner than you think," Ayanbadejo said. "We're in talks with a handful of players who are considering it. There are up to four players being talked to right now and they're trying to be organized so they can come out on the same day together. It would make a major splash and take the pressure off one guy. It would be a monumental day if a handful or a few guys come out."
Stallworth said he has never played in the NFL with anyone he's known to be gay, and added that there's still a "stigma" in the league toward the LGBT community. But he believes the environment has improved in the years since he joined in 2002.
"I think the culture from that point that has definitely changed, in some respects, for the better, but there's still a long way to go," he said. "I think the first important step is to get these four guys comfortable enough and willing to come out, and we'll help them in any way that we can."
Shortly after hanging up with The Huffington Post, Stallworth ran into tennis great and LGBT advocate Martina Navratilova. He sent along this picture of the two of them:
This article was updated after an interview with Stallworth.
Also on HuffPost:
Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker, Brendon Ayanbadejo, has been a vocal long-time supporter of marriage equality. The football player <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brendon-ayanbadejo/same-sex-marriages-whats_b_190591.html">blogged about same-sex marriages</a> for The Huffington Post in 2009, made a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/07/brendon-ayanbadejo-ravens-emmett-burns-marriage_n_1863488.html?utm_hp_ref=gay-voices&ir=Gay Voices">video for Marylanders for Marriage Equality</a>, and donated Ravens tickets to the cause, which drew <a href="http://www.wbaltv.com/news/politics/Delegate-unhappy-with-Ravens-player-s-support-of-same-sex-marriage/-/9379266/16487740/-/mro08gz/-/index.html?absolute=true">criticism from Baltimore County Delegate Emmett Burns Jr. in late August</a>.
Chris Kluwe, Minnesota Vikings punter, lashed out <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-kluwe/an-open-letter-to-emmett-burns_b_1866216.html?utm_hp_ref=gay-voices">at Baltimore County Delegate Emmett Burns Jr.</a> in a letter of his own. Kluwe asked in <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/09/sports/football/players-support-of-gay-marriage-alters-nfl-image.html">his letter</a>, “How does gay marriage, in any way, shape or form, affect your life?”
Hudson Taylor, a three-time all-American wrestler from the University of Maryland, <a href="http://www.advocate.com/sports/2012/09/06/hudson-taylor-takes-his-training-road"> (and HuffPost Gay Voices <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/hudson-taylor/">blogger</a>) started his foundation, Athlete Ally</a>, which encourages “all individuals involved in sports to respect every member of their communities, regardless of perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression,” in January 2011. Athlete Ally teamed up with GLAAD and they recently announced that the NBA is the first major sports league that will receive sensitivity training from Taylor’s organization.
Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander said in a CNN interview: “I don’t think one of our players would be scared to come out. We got 25 guys, it’s a family, and our goal is to win a World Series," Verlander said in the interview. "What your sexual orientation is, I don’t see how that affects the ultimate goal of our family."
Retired New York Ranger Sean Avery caused a splash last year when he became, what’s believed, the first pro athlete to voice <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/08/sports/hockey/08avery.html?_r=0">support for gay marriage</a> in New York. Since then, Avery teamed up with fellow ally, Hudson Taylor, <a href="http://www.athleteally.com/blog/entry/former-new-york-ranger-sean-avery-joins-athlete-ally-board1">joining in Athlete Ally’s message</a> of combating homophobia in sports.
Henrik Lundqvist is the goaltender for the New York Rangers. The 2012 Vezina Trophy winner for the best goaltender, Lundqvist backstopped Sweden to a 2006 Olympic Gold Medal. Off the ice, Lundqvist has been named to People Magazine's 100 Most Beautiful People List. When asked about his work with the "You Can Play Project," Lundqvist said: “For me, it’s obvious that everyone should have the same rights and ability to play the game. It doesn’t matter race or sexual orientation."
Australian rugby player David Pocock says he will not marry until <a href="http://outsports.com/jocktalkblog/2012/08/21/aussie-rugby-player-david-pocock-schools-politician-on-gay-marriage/">gay marriage is made legal Down Under</a>. “We’ve moved forward on so many issues and this is the next progression,” Pocock said while appearing on the Australian Broadcasting Company TV show “Q&A" in August.
Michael Irvin, former Dallas Cowboy and NFL Hall of Famer, appeared on <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/12/michael-irvin-out-magazine-cover_n_896468.html">Out magazine’s cover</a> last July. Irvin spoke out for LGBT rights and marriage equality, citing his late gay brother’s passing. He also said he would <a href="http://www.out.com/entertainment/sports/2011/07/10/michael-irvin-playmaker-preaches">support any athlete</a> in the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB who comes out.
Donte Stallworth, former Baltimore Raven and teammate of Brendon Ayanbadejo, showed his support on Twitter, tweeting a string of <a href="http://www.towleroad.com/2011/05/nfl-player-donté-stallworth-tweets-against-anti-gay-hate-in-favor-of-marriage-equality.html">messages for marriage equality and LGBT rights</a>.
Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/17/floyd-mayweather-gay-marriage-pacquiao-obama_n_1524155.html">tweeted his support for gay marriage</a>, backing up the President after Obama made his own endorsement announcement in May. On the other hand, Mayweather’s rival, Manny Pacquiao, said <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/16/manny-pacquiao-gay-marriage-leviticus-examiner_n_1521747.html">he believes marriage is between a man and a woman</a>.
Argentinian boxer Sergio Martinez <a href="http://www.itgetsbetter.org/video/entry/3272/">made a video</a> for the “It Gets Better Project” last March. The 37-year-old Martinez was <a href="http://www.usatoday.com/sports/boxing/story/2012-03-13/boxing-martinez/53540206/1">bullied himself growing up</a> and helps others who have been the victims of bullying.
In true Charles Barkley fashion, the NBA Hall of Famer has been a long-time supporter of gay marriage and gay rights, making tongue-in-cheek (yet admirable) comments as <a href="http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/news/story?id=2566899">early as 2006</a>. Barkley <a href="http://www.advocate.com/news/daily-news/2011/01/18/charles-barkley-loves-gay-people">said on-air last year</a>, “God bless the gay people. They are great people.” And in response to Sean Avery’s advocacy, Barkley added he’d have <a href="http://content.usatoday.com/communities/gameon/post/2011/05/media-watch-charles-barkley-on-gay-athletes----we-dont-care/1#.UFCet0JAsu9">no problem playing with an openly gay teammate</a>.
Claude Giroux is the captain of the Philadelphia Flyers. In 2012, he was ranked the 3rd best player in hockey by The Hockey News. The 25-year-old superstar was also the coverboy for EA Sports NHL 2013. Nicknamed "G," Giroux appeared in a PSA for the "You Can Play" Project in 2012.
When Phoenix Suns president and CEO <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/16/sports/basketball/nba-executive-says-he-is-gay.html?pagewanted=all">Rick Welts came out</a> to NBA all-star Steve Nash, he said he’d support Welts. Soon after, Nash <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/23/steve-nash-supports-marriage-equality_n_865429.html">made a video</a> for HRC’s New Yorkers for Marriage Equality campaign, saying he’s proud to be a part of a growing group of athletes speaking out for gay marriage.
Although he hasn’t explicitly said anything about gay rights, retired three-time NBA champion Rick Fox, appeared as a guest judge on <a href="http://www.logotv.com/video/episode-2-season-4-wtf-wrestlings-trashiest-fighters/1678533/playlist.jhtml#vid=721347">“RuPaul’s Drag Race” season four</a>. Plus, his former ex, Vanessa Williams (gay icon, at least to Raja, Drag Race season three winner) was also on the show the season before. If this isn’t a sign of LGBT support, what is?
Cleveland Browns player Scott Fujita first voiced his support for gay marriage in 2009, reacting and <a href="http://outsports.com/jocktalkblog/2009/10/01/new-orleans-saint-scott-fujita-supports-marriage/">agreeing with fellow NFL colleague Brendon Ayanbadejo</a>. Two years later, Fujita continued his LGBT advocacy, <a href="http://www.hrc.org/blog/entry/scott-fujita-joins-hrcs-americans-for-marriage-equality">taping a PSA</a> for the HRC’s Americans for Marriage Equality initiative.
“Let [gay people] go through what [straight people] go through,” said John Salley, former Detroit Piston bad boy, who made light of his support for gay marriage on <a href="http://www.myfoxla.com/video?clipId=7251666&autostart=true">Good Day LA back in 2010</a>. Recently, Salley appeared alongside fellow former NBA player Rick Fox on <a href="http://www.logotv.com/video/episode-2-season-4-wtf-wrestlings-trashiest-fighters/1678533/playlist.jhtml#vid=721347">RuPaul’s Drag Race” season four</a>, another reason to love the charismatic b-ball player.
When Argentina became the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage two years ago, homegrown NBA star Manu Ginobili <a href="http://outsports.com/jocktalkblog/2010/07/16/manu-ginobli-supports-gay-marriage/">threw in his support.</a>
One very active <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/14/sports/two-straight-athletes-combat-homophobia.html?pagewanted=all">straight ally is Ben Cohen</a>, an English rugby world cup champion, who retired to start <a href="http://www.standupfoundation.com/">The Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation</a>, which “supports organizations, programs and people that advance equality for the LGBT community and help for at-risk youth by standing up against bullying.” Cohen recently stripped down to his underwear to benefit his organization and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/06/ben-cohen-strips-for-equa_n_1747838.html">spoke with Huffington. in August</a>. He said, “No one should have to tolerate that [bullying], no matter what your sexual orientation, the color of your skin, your size or the color of your hair is.”
Michael Strahan, retired New York Giant and new co-host of “LIVE! with Kelly and Michael,” <a href="http://www.hrc.org/videos/videos-michael-strahan-for-hrcs-nyers-for-marriage-equality#.UFC8s0JAsu8">made a video</a> for HRC’s New Yorkers for Marriage campaign. <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/michael-strahan-fun-facts-newest-live-host/story?id=17147911#.UFC9pUJAsu8">He said</a>, “I feel it's unfair to keep committed couples from being married."
Popular soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo said, “We must respect the choices made by anyone, because, after all, all citizens should have the exact same rights and responsibilities,” when asked about the passage of <a href="http://www.advocate.com/news/daily-news/2010/06/02/cristiano-ronaldo-supports-gay-marriage">gay marriage in his home country of Portugal</a> in 2010.
The sports-entertainment world of wrestling has had its fair share of homophobic culture in the news. Though there have been anti-gay remarks made by <a href="http://www.cagesideseats.com/2011/3/25/2071241/glaad-forces-wwe-and-john-cena-to-knock-off-the-homophobic-jokes">John Cena</a>, <a href="http://www.tmz.com/2011/07/04/cm-punk-wwe-wrestler-wrestling-homo-homophobic-slur-australia/">CM Punk</a> and <a href="http://www.towleroad.com/2011/03/wwe-commentator-.html">Michael Cole</a>, Jesse Ventura, former Minnesota governor and wrestler, has <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/14/jesse-ventura-vote-no-minnesota-governor-pro-wrestler-same-sex-marriage-antigay-amendment_n_1884626.html?utm_hp_ref=gay-voices">lent his support for gay marriage</a>. Ventura, who appears alongside his wife, Terry, in a video for "<a href="http://mnunited.org">Minnesotans United for All Families</a>," an initiative asking voters to say no to a 2012 constitutional amendment that says marriage is between a man and a woman. Ventura said, "Government should not be telling people who to fall in love with."
Various Athletes Pose For NOH8
Former NBA star, Isiah Thomas, poses with his son for NOH8, a campaign that advocates gay marriage and LGBT rights. Other pro athletes who've participated: football players <a href="http://outsports.com/jocktalkblog/2011/05/11/carolina-panthers-linebacker-nic-harris-does-portrait-for-the-noh8-campaign/">Nic Harris, Antonio Cromartie and Isaac Keys</a>, all-American wrestler <a href="http://www.noh8campaign.com/photo-gallery/familiar-faces-part-2/photo/12954">Hudson Taylor</a>, and soccer player <a href="http://www.noh8campaign.com/photo-gallery/familiar-faces-part-2/photo/15572">Mike Chabala</a>.
Vancouver Canucks Manny Malhotra and Jason Garrison marched with the "You Can Play Project" in Vancouver Pride 2012. The players, along with Canucks mascot Fin, marched with the Cutting Edges, an all-gay hockey team. Malhotra, who described himself as "thrilled" to be there, stated: “It’s paramount that equality in sport, and beyond, becomes the norm. Everybody has the right to play the game they love.” <em>Note: An earlier version of this slide stated that the Canucks were the first North American team to march in a pride parade. However, the Chicago Blackhawks marched in the 2010 Chicago Pride Parade.</em>
Grant Hill And Jared Dudley
Last May, NBA players Grant Hill and Jared Dudley made a PSA announcement for the <a href="http://thinkb4youspeak.com">“Think B4 You Speak” campaign</a>, where the athletes denounce using the word gay to mean "dumb" or "stupid." The video was a three-way partnership among the NBA, GLSEN and the Ad Council.
Teams And Athletes Join The It Gets Better Project
The San Francisco 49ers became the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/24/san-francisco-49ers-it-gets-better-campaign-_n_1828488.html">first NFL team to make a video</a> for the "It Gets Better Project," in August. Other sports teams who have made videos include L.A. Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies, Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, and the San Francisco Giants.
Zdeno Chara has a reputation as hockey's biggest, meanest, toughest player. The captain of the 2011 Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins, Chara was named hockey's best defenseman in 2009. In his PSA for the "You Can Play Project," Chara states that he will back an openly gay hockey player, declaring "I will always stand up for my teammates."