Sebastian Rey — a lifelong Saints fan and the president of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Community Center of New Orleans — didn’t care when it became clear that Jonathan Vilma, one of his favorite players, was hardly going to suit up for the Black and Gold in 2013.
Rey still wore his No. 51 Saints jersey with Vilma’s name emblazoned across the back. It was Rey’s tribute to the man who quarterbacked the defense that helped New Orleans win its lone Super Bowl title at the end of the 2009 season.
Then, Rey saw the interview that aired on the NFL Network on Feb. 2, the one where Vilma rhetorically asked how he was supposed to react if he was naked in the shower and a homosexual teammate looked at him. Vilma would eventually go on television and say he’d actually be fine playing with an openly gay teammate, even if he wasn’t sure others with whom he’s shared locker rooms would think the same.
However, at least before Vilma’s clarification, all Rey felt was “disappointment.”
“I’m a big Jonathan Vilma fan,” said Rey, who’s gay. “And he has a lot of fans in the gay community. I can’t tell you how many Vilma jerseys I’ve seen at gay bars during Saints games. And whether or not he (was) supportive of us, we (were) supportive of him.”
Rey and his friends are just a miniscule percentage of the hundreds of thousands of fans who’ve either rooted for Vilma or purchased gear with his name and number on it during his 10-year NFL career and his six seasons in New Orleans.
But, more than anyone else, they deserved the explanation Vilma gave in media appearances Monday and Tuesday about his shower comments, which he rightly called a “poor example” to offer about how some in NFL locker rooms may be reluctant to accept an openly gay teammate.
After missing all but one game in 2013 with a knee injury, the 31-year-old Vilma caused an uproar by saying in a Feb. 2 NFL Network piece, “I think (an openly gay player) would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted.”
The linebacker also said, “Imagine if he’s the guy next to me, and … I get … naked, taking a shower, … and it just so happens he looks at me. How am I supposed to respond?”
Unsurprisingly, Vilma’s words incensed many, and they were widely circulated for two main reasons.
He had already sent out a tweet in 2012 that read, “Grown men should NOT have female tendencies.” And they were then brought up as an example of the bigotry that NFL draft prospect Michael Sam might encounter in the pursuit of a pro career after telling the nation he is gay on Sunday.
Sam — an All-American from Missouri and the Southeastern Conference’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year after leading the league in sacks and tackles for loss — could become the first person to come out as gay and then make the NFL.
Vilma, of course, set out for some damage control, showing up as a guest on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360″ on Monday and ESPN Radio’s “Mike & Mike in the Morning” on Tuesday.
He assured he and his teammates only care about whether players produce on the football field — not about their sexual orientation. He said the courage Sam displayed by coming out was indicative of someone who one day is “going to be a leader in the locker room.”
“He’s going to stand up for what he believes in, and he’s going to say what he believes,” Vilma said.
Vilma added he’d have no problem playing alongside Sam or any other gay man. He admitted the hypothetical shower scenario was poorly worded.
He said he only invoked it to illustrate a prediction: that there’d be early trepidation and opposition to an openly gay player among some in the NFL’s rank-and-file, but that would gradually dissipate.
“There’s going to be a natural resistance … when there’s a change,” Vilma told “Mike & Mike.” “And then, after that transition, it gets smoother and smoother, and it’s a non-issue.”
Vilma’s opinion, although not original, deserves some consideration. He’s speaking as someone who has a decade’s worth of NFL experience, for most of which he’s been a locker-room leader.
But his expert take was really the least valuable part of his making the rounds in front of America’s viewers and listeners. More importantly, Vilma couldn’t let the what he had said to NFL Network stand.
Rey and his friends deserved much, much better, and perhaps the only thing that mattered about Vilma’s guest spots was that he at last began giving it to them.