Eddie George thinks that a gay player would have fit in just fine on Tennessee's Super Bowl team.

Perception isn’t always reality. When Ray Lewis screams something about hitting someone hard, our belief that NFL players are emotionless beings bent on destruction is hardened. When Drew Brees leads the Saints’ pre-game chant, we see a man who’s usually very much a gentleman off the field morph into an intense leader.

There’s no place for softness in the NFL, and for many the mental perception of an openly gay athlete is someone who’s filled with softness. The sample size may be small, but there’s a handful of people who don’t agree with that perception, and they may know something about a football locker room.

They played or are about to play in the NFL. All of them.

Last week at the NFLPA Rookie Premiere event in Los Angeles, Out Sports talked to rookies and retired players, and asked them whether or not an openly gay player would be accepted in today’s NFL. During an American election year when the president of the United States recently supported gay marriage, progress is quickly being pushed forward. Youth drive that progress, and some of the league’s highest profile rookies would welcome a gay teammate.

“As long as they competed on the field and gave it their all in practice, that’s all I care about,” said Coby Fleener, the Colts tight end who played his college football at Stanford, just a short drive from liberal and open-minded San Francisco.

Trent Richardson played his college ball in Alabama, which isn’t San Francisco. Not at all.

But that didn’t change his opinion.

“I never pay attention to it,” Richardson said while revealing he has gay friends. “They do what they do. I don’t have a problem with them. As long as they’re playing good football and contributing to the team, I don’t have nothing to do with that. It is what it is. I don’t have any problem with any sexuality or whatever they’ve got going on. That’s them. That’s what they want to do. That’s their life.”

Richardson’s thoughts were similar the words of Eddie George, the former Titan and four-time Pro Bowler who had over 10,000 career rushing yards.

“I just don’t care about that. If that’s what you do, that’s what you do. I don’t hate you because of it or dislike you because of it. That’s not my personal preference, but I respect your decision. I’m not going to like you less or not be your friend because of that.”

George added that he’s confident a gay player would have been accepted on his Titans team that was defeated by the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV.

For former Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce, winning was all that matters. And so it should be.

“You have to accept [a gay player] because he is a part of your team. He’s one of the 53 guys. Obviously he’s put in the sweat and the blood and the pain to get there. I’ll never knock him. As long as we can win a football game, I don’t care. As long as we’re winning football games and winning championships, that’s all that matters.”

These are encouraging, progressive words from both the next generation of NFL stars and recently retired players with experience in pro locker rooms. Just over a year ago, David Tyree called gay marriage “anarchy.” His view may be pushed to the minority by the next generation, and thankfully the memory of Jeremy Shockey’s idiotic attempt to be funny is fading.

This has always been a highly divisive and emotionally charged issue. But as society continues to progress, that progression should spread to the most aggressive and intense sports arena.