Michael Irvin poses shirtless for equality in Out Magazine

Michael Irwin poses shirtless on the cover of Out Magazine

Michael Irvin, the former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver, has posed for the cover of Out Magazine to show his support for equality. In the feature interview, he addresses equality, women, football, masculinity, and religion.

Aside from his football skills (he is in the Hall of Fame and, along with Emmit Smith and Troy Aikman, comprised the all-star group known as the “triplets”), Irvin has previously been known for his flamboyant fashion (he famously showed up to his arraignment on drug charges in a long fur coat), drug use, womanizing, and trouble with the law, including accusations of violence and sexual assault — some of which are still pending in various stages.

So I was surprised to see him featured on the most recent cover of Out Magazine, the largest gay magazine in the world, putting in a plug for equality and saying that he would support any athlete who comes out.

“If anyone comes out in those top four major sports, I will absolutely support him. … When a guy steps up and says, ‘This is who I am,’ I guarantee you I’ll give him 100 percent support,” Irvin said.

The full interview isn’t available publicly yet, but according to ESPN, Irvin publicly acknowledges that the impetus for taking a stand comes from his relationship with his gay brother, Vaughn, who died in 2006.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t heartened by the entire profile. Seeing a football player whose public image is one of hyper-masculinity speak publicly about the importance of equality is pretty great. That being said, there are some problematic elements to the piece as well.

In the article, Irvin says that he found out his brother was gay when he saw him wearing women’s clothing. He claims he was “rattled” by the experience, and since has even contributed to his own womanizing behavior in efforts to prove he wasn’t gay. But dressing in women’s clothing doesn’t automatically say anything about sexual orientation. I get that this was a moment of truth for Irvin about his brother, but I wish this point could have been made more clearly, without confusing clothing preferences with sexual orientation.

Irvin also uses the term “womanizing” in a way that makes me uncomfortable given Irvin’s history of sexual assault accusations, including rumors that he and teammate Erik Williams had sexually assaulted a Dallas woman, Nina Shahravan, and, with a gun to her head, videotaped the interaction. The accuser later recanted her story, but another case in which a woman has accused Irvin of rape is still under investigation. More to the point, both Irvin and Out Magazine seem to conflate “promiscuity” and “womanizing” with actual sexual assault by glossing over the fact that Irvin’s been at the center of several rape and assault allegations. These are far from the same thing, and I think Irvin’s comments could have been made even stronger if he had acknowledged every aspect of his public interactions with women, including the sexual assault charges.

Another element of the interview that I found problematic was the erasure or lack of acknowledgement of the rampant homophobia in professional sports (from the parts of the interview I’ve seen).

“I believe, if a teammate had said he’s gay, we would have integrated him and kept moving because of the closeness,” Irvin said, according to the magazine.

He believes the team that won three Super Bowls could have integrated an openly gay teammate as well as any other team.

This is an admirable goal, but I feel like it fails to reflect the very real and powerful force of homophobia in the NFL in particular. While it can be tempting to paint a glossy portrait of equality and everyone getting along, we all know that’s not how it actually works, and I think this was an opportunity lost to point to some of the problems in the NFL and make a call for real change.

All in all, despite these criticisms, I’m psyched to see this profile, and was impressed to hear Irvin say that he feels that this work matters more than his football career:

“The last thing I want is to go to God and have him ask, ‘What did you do?’ And I talk about winning Super Bowls and national titles,” Irvin said, according to Out. “I didn’t do anything to make it a better world before I left? All I got is Super Bowls? That would be scary.”

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/cshap18/ Conor

    Excellent post. I completely agree. Irvin is not without his flaws as you accurately point out. However, the fact that he took a stand (in this instance at least) was brave and I give him props for it.

  • http://feministing.com/members/shasty/ emmie

    This is a very interesting article. And it’s good that he wants to support gay players. But I’ll be honest, I wonder what he thinks about gay women? Especially with his whole stance on the “womanizing” think. Just a thought.

  • http://feministing.com/members/ihopeiwin247/ ihopeiwin247

    As a huge, long-time Cowboys fan, I’m proud to see one of our all-time greats standing up for a good cause. Irvin was my second-favorite player (next to Aikman) and through all his tribulations I’ve always thought deep down he was a good guy. I believe his personal, supportive sentiment that he would have supported a publicly-gay teammate, but I agree with the author here: there’s no way locker rooms back in the 90s would have uniformly supported a teammate like that. If anyone’s read “Boys Will Be Boys” about the Dallas Cowboys of the early 90s, it’s clear Irvin’s Cowboys locker room would have been an absolutely menacing place for a gay player. Players like Charles Haley would routinely swing their dicks in other players’ faces, screaming homophobic insults at them and anyone and everyone they could see. Teamwork was a hallmark of the 90s Cowboys, but tolerance apparently wasn’t.

  • http://feministing.com/members/steveo/ Steven Olson

    I also think this is awesome, and although Irvin has certainly had his problems, there is just something about the way he presents himself that make him likable. I really can’t describe why, but he really does come off as a good guy.

    And I have mixed feelings about whether or not he was right about whether or not the Cowboy teams he was a part of would be accepting of a gay teammate or not. Homophobia is pretty amplified in sports. And certainly the most common insults doled out are homophobic slurs, but I am not convinced that everyone who uses them is intentionally being homophobic.

    I remember watching a documentary about Brendan Burke, son of Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke. Although not a player, he is the first person in hockey to come out as gay. He was the team manager for the Miami of Ohio NCAA hockey team. In this documentary, they interviewed teammates, who said, after he came out to them, it was a non issue, but that they all started to actually think about what the homophobic slurs they used must have felt like and stopped using them.

    What I am trying to get at, is in a locker room for a team sport, leadership can do a lot of good, or a lot of bad. If all of the natural leaders on the Cowboys were very tolerant I think it may be possible that if they made it important to accept and stand up for such a gay teammate it would possibly make the fence sitters become accepting and make the homophobic players shut up and keep their opinions to themselves. Its of course, just purely speculation on my part, but I can see it as a possibility, and quite frankly, I am hoping Irvin is right in this claim.

    Going back to the documentary I mentioned earlier. They also claim (this claim is made by both a retired NHL player, and an openly gay Canadian Olympic gold medalist) that there are gay NHL players who are out to their teammates, but not the public and their teams accept them. I hope this is true, and hope that the day when a current pro athlete comes out is near. I also hope it opens up the flood gates so it quickly becomes something that isn’t a big deal.