Odell Beckham Jr is an outstanding football player. In only his third year, hes already one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, and as a bonus, hes a marketers dream. Nobody in the world can catch the ball one-handed, falling out of bounds, as brilliantly as he can.
But despite Beckhams showmanship, hes also disliked by many, in part because of a suspension he received for reacting to the anti-gay taunts of other players. He has been ranked as one of the most disliked players in the history of the NFL, even though he has only played for two full seasons. This makes little sense given that, despite an ill-advised helmet-to-helmet hit to Josh Norman, Beckham has always been a model citizen.
But it provides a glimpse of the biggest problem with the NFL. The league only wants the Odell Beckham that catches passes; it doesnt anyone who it deems a distraction.
Things came to a head in the Giants-Panthers game in December last year. Beckham got into numerous confrontations with Norman, now with Washington, and was suspended for one game for multiple violations of safety-related playing rules. But some Giants players on the field said they heard Panthers defensive players direct anti-gay slurs and expletives at Beckham before the game, which helped set the confrontational tone.
Even before that, Beckham had been targeted with homophobic slurs, according to his friend, former Dallas Cowboys star Michael Irvin. He deals with it a lot. For some reason, everybody goes after him with gay slurs. Hes a different kind of dude. He has the hairdo out, hes not the big muscular kind of dude, Irvin said.
Beckham is certainly cut from a different cloth. He is impeccably dressed and has awesome hair. In that respect, hes more of an NBA player not afraid to show his personal side. And yet the NFL has done nothing to protect one of its most-attacked players.
The NFL investigated the homophobic allegations and said it found no evidence of wrongdoing, but it did not even interview one of Beckhams closest teammates, punter Brad Wing. The Panthers also claimed they did not taunt Beckham in other ways before the game, despite being caught on video doing so.
The Giants stand by Beckhams version of events. Why would our guy say they used that language unless they did? The claim serves no purpose other than the truth, Giants spokesperson Pat Hanlon told Outsports. The NFL suspended Beckham, but Norman was merely fined for his role in the altercation. And even absent explicit evidence of homophobic slurs, the harassment of Beckham in general does not seem to bother the league.
After a half-hearted investigation, the NFL is still ignoring the treatment Beckham receives, on and off the field. Unsurprisingly, it hasnt gotten better.
Beckham was taunted on social media after he posted a video singing in a hot tub with a teammate, and he was sexualized by Lena Dunham after the Met Gala. On the field, as he became more frustrated with his play and the taunts he received from opponents by the week, he did some foolish things, like shouldering a referee, and it culminated in his punching a kicking net. Psychologists hypothesized that he needed anger management. Beckham said he was not having fun any more. Thats no surprise, because the NFL all but allowed a player to be targeted with homophobic slurs and general harassment.
In 11 months, as Beckhams image has transitioned from promising newcomer to unstable hothead, the NFL has facilitated that narrative by effectively staying out of anything that doesnt affect play on the field. Thats a disservice to athletes in the post-Michael Sam NFL, and really a side-step of any organizations duties in 2016. And Beckhams sexuality is completely irrelevant to that fact.
Even after Sam broke barriers by becoming the first openly gay NFL player, there are still barriers for gay athletes and fans, particularly in this sport. The Public Religion Research Institute found in 2015 that 73% of fans would accept a gay player on their team, but there are still massive blocks of people like white evangelicals, at 54% that do not support LGBT rights in sports. And its clear that the realities LGBT athletes face are not thoroughly understood by all fans pro football fans tend to skew Republican, and only 43% of Republicans responded that LGBT athletes face a lot of discrimination, in the face of evidence just like what happened to Beckham.
The NFL had an ability, and an obligation, to change the dialogue about harassment, LGBT-related and otherwise. It could have suspended or fined any of the number of players who have badgered and harassed Beckham on the field this season. It could have actually investigated allegations of homophobic slurs. It could have enacted a strict punishment structure for anyone who engages in that kind of language. It could have thrown a big investment into the You Can Play Project, or a similar program.It chose to not do any of that.
The NFL will, of course, say it does not tolerate homophobia or harassment. But the danger is less the obvious homophobes; the danger is the people who remain silent and stay in their own lane, refusing to speak out on behalf of others. Silence and inaction, like the NFL has shown over the past year, tacitly endorses the behavior of a minority, effectively making them sound like a majority to both those being harassed within the league, and anyone who has been harassed and is looking to their escape outlet sports to tell them that they arent the problem.
The NFL chose to endorse harassment, because it refused to take action about something that didnt affect the on-field product. Thats why the harassment of Beckham and others will continue because the NFL showed its OK, while quietly muttering that it doesnt believe in such actions or language. And its how the league has helped create a villain out of someone who doesnt deserve that label, pasted to him by harassers.
- This article was amended on 25 November 2016. An earlier version of the story mistakenly indicated Odell Beckham Jr was playing in his second NFL season. Its his third season.