On January 29th, five days before a Super Bowl game in which he’d be embarrassingly outwitted by Baltimore Ravens receiver Jacoby Jones, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Cullvier told comedian Artie Lange during an interview that an openly gay football player wouldn’t be welcomed in a National Football League locker room.
I don’t do the gay guys man. I don’t do that. No, we don’t got no gay people on the team, 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. Nah.
The next day, amid the ensuing media storm, Culliver made an apology, in which he made a questionable differentiation between his mind and his emotions.
The derogatory comments I made yesterday were a reflection of thoughts in my head, but they are not how I feel. It has taken me seeing them in print to realize that they are hurtful and ugly. Those discriminating feelings are truly not in my heart. Further, I apologize to those who I have hurt and offended, and I pledge to learn and grow from this experience.
The explanation for his prejudiced remarks was largely mocked at the time, but a month after his team’s Super Bowl loss, Culliver followed through on his commitment to “learn and grow from this experience.” On Monday, the backup cornerback visited The Trevor Project, an organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth.
On the surface, it seems like a good story: A public figure made an ignorant and potentially harmful statement, he learned of how hurtful his comments were, and he corrected his mistake by supporting an organization that fights the same type of prejudice that he expressed in his original statement. However, there’s a number of insidious elements to this tweet:
When attempting to promote one’s own increased awareness, it’s likely not the best practice to mistake one’s location for those whom you’ve offended or to whom you’re attempting to make amends. LGBTQ isn’t a place to be visited as much as it is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning – not question, as Culliver suggests in his tweet. Mistakes happen though, and as we might infer from his original comment and subsequent apology, Culliver may not be the most articulate among our species.
However, just in case you wanted to dismiss this as nothing more than that and focus instead on the intentions behind his visit, the football player went to the telling trouble of mentioning his public relations representatives in the tweet, while The Trevor Project’s handle remains conspicuously absent. In fact, after clicking through to the Twitter profile of his P.R. firm, we learn that his tweet is little more than a retweet of what Creative Edge PR shared with its followers a dozen hours earlier, complete with a mention of the 49ers P.R. director and a fake 49ers Twitter account featuring an additional “r” in the handle.
— Creative Edge PR (@CreativeEdgePRS) March 4, 2013
The blatant lack of awareness and subsequent mishandling of the recompense for his ignorance is reminiscent to former Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar writing a homophobic slur on his eye-black this past summer and then informing members of the media at the resulting press conference that he had plenty of gay friends, including his hairdresser and interior decorator. Such occurrences serve to emphasize the astounding lack of education at which the initial action only hinted, while simultaneously leading us to wonder if promises to further one’s understanding in response to spewing prejudice are as genuine as they might seem.
In the case of Escobar, the current member of the Tampa Bay Rays met with Patrick Burke and Jose Estevez of the You Can Play Project in September, shortly after part of his salary from a three game suspension was donated to the organization dedicated to ensuring equality regardless of sexual orientation. It was all part of an education initiative for the player that was announced to reporters while he was still playing in Toronto.
Since the initial 45 minute meeting, which a news release from You Can Play described as “productive,” there’s been no contact between the shortstop and the organization. Burke points to mitigating circumstances as a factor in the lack of follow up.
He was traded twice this season. We were previously in touch with Tampa Bay, with [Andrew] Friedman, the general manager. But the athlete background in me understands it’s probably best to let him settle in a new location before we reach out to him.
However, the way in which events have played out seem to have improved the player’s image without furthering his education. Nonetheless, Burke believes that Escobar was genuine in expressing interest in working with You Can Play despite the inherent language and cultural barriers.
I could read his body language when he spoke with Jose [Estevez, a runner at Boston College]. It seemed guarded at first, but by the end of the meeting they hugged. I asked Jose if Yunel got it, and he told me, “I really think he does.”
Burke went on to express an understanding that an athlete experiencing what he refers to as a “crisis situation” might attempt to use the organization to improve their own personal image, but stressed that You Can Play hasn’t run into that situation because the sheer number of athletes involved in their advocacy group limits the benefit that a single specific athlete could gain.
However, there is certainly something to be gained for an organization whose goal is to improve awareness, to emerge as a correcting influence on a publicly embarrassed athlete. One need look no further than The Trevor Project’s handling of the Chris Culliver incident to see that such partnerships are mutually beneficial. Three separate news releases were issued by The Trevor Project in the past month relating to Culliver’s homophobic statement. The first release condemned his actions as harmful, the second announced that he would be participating in an educational training program, and the third announced his visit earlier this week.
The three highest peaks in mentions via news headlines (as measured by Google Trends) correspond to the date of each of these new releases.
Let’s not fall too far down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole, though. According to Meredith Rogers of Hill + Knowlton Strategies, public relations advisers would be unlikely to direct a client toward partnership with an advocacy group without a genuine desire on his or her behalf to learn more about the issue and alter their perspective.
Awareness of the unpredictable nature of business and human behavior makes it necessary to look at each PR issue differently. It’s essential to act quickly and look at the issue with fresh eyes. There’s a ton of strategy that would be considered for any of the bad things a client did or said. If a client uttered a homophobic slur, for example, before providing counsel to act, we would consider the client’s past behavior, the context, the actual words spoken, and whether there is a genuine remorse or willingness to change displayed by the speaker. If a person who erred shows a willingness to change or be educated about LGBT issues, initiating a partnership with an advocacy group would likely be recommended.
I suppose that the lesson to be learned from Rogers in this case is not to be too cynical, especially when the outcomes, no matter the motivation, tend to be positive.
Worst case scenario: perhaps the advocacy groups don’t get through to the celebrity after all – maybe at his or her core, the athlete is simply a stubborn bigot – but that doesn’t mean the groups shouldn’t try to help them understand the LGBT perspective. Plus, the added mainstream audience gained through working with a celebrity provides a great opportunity to create new relationships and change minds that they may not have reached otherwise.
In this case, two wrongs can actually make a right.