By Simon Evans
MIAMI (Reuters) - They're big, they're tough, and, presumably, some of them are gay, but so far not a single active NFL player has come out and said so. After NBA player Jason Collins broke that barrier this week, the National Football League is making sure it will be ready for any coming out party.
Earlier this year, at least three college football players said they had been asked about their sexual orientation during NFL recruitment interviews, sparking calls for the NFL to do more to fight discrimination.
Just hours before Collins' coming out statement was published by Sports Illustrated on Tuesday, the NFL - America's most popular sport, with $9 billion a year in revenue - released a ‘workplace conduct statement' regarding sexual orientation.
"The NFL has a long history of valuing diversity and inclusion. Discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation is not consistent with our values and is unacceptable in the National Football League," league commissioner Roger Goodell says in the document.
League spokesman Greg Aiello told Reuters that the timing of the release was purely coincidental and that the document had been worked on for several weeks with no advance notice given to the NFL about Collins's impending statement.
The memo, sent to chief executives, club presidents, head coaches and general managers, highlights a tough policy on reporting acts of discrimination or harassment and makes clear that questions about sexuality are not permitted during recruitment interviews.
Collins' statement, and the reaction to it, has raised expectations that other gay athletes will feel the time is right to come out. Leading players in the NBA, including LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and top coaches such as Boston Celtics' Doc Rivers, expressed support for Collins.
Several reports have indicated that one or more NFL players may be close to coming out.
Earlier this month, Brendon Ayanbadejo, who played in the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens team last season, said up to four players were considering jointly revealing their sexuality.
"I think it will happen sooner than you think," Ayanbadejo told the Baltimore Sun.
"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.
"The NFL and organizations are already being proactive," he said.
Ayanbadejo is a leading member of Athlete Ally, a group which brings together straight athletes in support of gay rights, and one of several gay rights groups that have been involved in behind-the-scenes talks with the NFL.
Former NFL player Wade Davis, who came out as gay after his career in the sport, believes that an American football locker-room is essentially no different than any other workplace.
"You are always going to have a smattering of players who aren't going to be comfortable with it but that's the same in any part of society, sports or otherwise," Davis told Reuters.
But Davis, who left the NFL in 2003 after trying his luck with Tennessee, Seattle and the Washington Redskins, believes there has been a real change in the attitude of players in the past decade.
"When I was playing there were really no conversations about what it means to be a gay athlete. I think the climate has definitely changed and I think also in society you have more people who are gay and lesbian who are coming out, so everyone pretty much knows another person who is gay."
But not everyone is convinced the NFL is ready.
"I don't think football is ready, there are too many guys in the locker-room and, you know, guys play around too much," former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, now a television analyst with NBC, told NBC Sports Radio on Tuesday.
"Hopefully one guy comes out of the closet and (will) be comfortable with himself," Ward said.
"I don't have anything against a gay football player or a gay person period, so if he does, he has support from me. I want people to live their lives for who they are and (they) don't have to hide behind closed doors to do that."
Shortly after the Collins announcement, Mike Wallace, a wide receiver Miami Dolphins, was criticized for a tweet that said: "All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys, SMH (Shaking My Head)." He later deleted the message and apologized for any offense caused.
Wallace's reaction was not quite on the scale of San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver who made headlines before this year's Super Bowl by saying he would not welcome a gay player into the team's locker-room.
Culliver spent a pre-Super Bowl media session with scores of television cameras pointed in his face as he repeated his apology for an hour.
Gay rights groups say that making the locker room ready requires more than just stamping down on homophobic comments on the field or in social media and involves a process of education.
Aaron McQuade, of gay rights group GLAAD, says the NFL has responded well to the group's suggestions that proscribing discrimination isn't enough on its own.
"We are part of a coalition that has been meeting with the NFL and speaking with them for almost a year now about ways to stop coming down hard on guys for saying something that they didn't think about and start educating them," McQuade told Reuters.
"We are still very early in the process but it's moving along fairly quickly," he added. "The NFL is absolutely committed to not just punishing the players that misbehave but actually educating the players about these issues."
(Reporting By Simon Evans; Editing by Claudia Parsons)