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.”