Being a Fan of the Steelers is a Preference, Being a Lesbian is Not

It is 2014. There is simply no excuse for a college educated 23-year-old man like Eric Waters to use the phrase “sexual preference” unless he is being a snide bigot.

Eric Waters
Eric Waters Photo: Mizzou Network

Period.

I’m referring to a Tribune Review interview in which Waters talks disrespectful trash about his college roommate, Michael Sam – the first openly gay NFL player.

“Like I tell everybody else, I don’t care about your sexual preference or if you are black or white or freaking purple,” Waters said. “As long as you can play football, that’s all that matters. We had a common denominator: We were brought to the same university because we had the ability to play football. That’s all that matters.”

In the article, Waters come across as a bitter guy who resents that Sam has achieved a level of fame that eludes him. It is not an attractive pose. It also subtly implies that Sam is getting the attention because he’s gay and he’s “carrying himself” differently which is a little red flag for me. Is he carrying himself like a gay man? Like he’s arrogant? Does he have a swish? Or is he perhaps carrying himself like a man who isn’t hiding something?

Waters is at training camp with the Steelers. Apparently, Waters is a free agent and was not actually drafted. I’m not sure how insulting your former friend, teammate and roommate enhances your value as a player or future teammate to other possibly gay players. Explain that to me please? It sounds like a ridiculous flip flop to me.

The big red flag is “sexual preference.” The Steelers should really nip that in the bud if they want to be a modern team with modern fans. Waters is certainly entitled to his own opinion, but now is the time to grow up and act like an adult not a petulant kid who didn’t get picked in the first round. If he wants to insult Sam, don’t insult the rest of us by pretending is it not a slam on his sexual orientation.

Waters may not realize that the Steelers have a long history of bad behavior, including current Assistant Coach Joey Porter. Pittsburgh fans rarely hold the team accountable for bad behavior – from DUI to rape, there is a clear willingness among Steeler fans to turn a blind eye.

But the mounting pressure on the NFL in light of the Ray Rice domestic assault on his fiancee is a glimpse of where things are going. The Steelers would be wise to offer their players some basic education on how to respectfully engage fans on issues like sexual orientation. Because the Steeler Nation HQ is changing. It is growing more diverse and less tolerant of brutish behavior. There is wisdom among Steeler alumni who have evolved – old men can help!

Sexual preference is not a thing. It is not a term. It is an insult. Waters might prefer to play football over baseball, but he does not prefer to be heterosexual. I know there are some old school folks (like Tony Norman – sigh) who use the term, but Waters is 23. Old school isn’t a reasonable excuse. There is no excuse – he’s a grown man and he needs to use respectful language.

I don’t care if he wants to insult his former friend and roommate or if he’s jealous or if he thinks he’ll win America’s hearts by doing so. He may prefer to sound like a bigot, but he’s not going to get away with “tepid” homophobic bigotry while I’m watching. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too, my friend.

And this “white black purple” stuff is absurd, too. (Why is it always white, black, and purple? Is that a weird shout out to the bruises of the women being beaten and disregarded by the NFL?) There are a lot of young black men in Pittsburgh who know that it damn well matters that they are black and not getting offered a chance to play football at the college level. This “I don’t see color” mentality is ridiculous, especially from someone who is claiming that they didn’t get a fair shot in college. Waters’ ignorance and immaturity may be at play here, but there’s just no excuse for the Steelers to allow that to fly. They can certainly do some Diversity 101 and explain that “Next Pittsburgh” is not color-blind and does not tolerate bigotry against LGBTQ people.

The Steelers should be using this “lull” in their legacy to become the team we can all be proud of, not just on the field. With resources like “You Can Play” not to mention the myriad of resources here in Pittsburgh, there’s no excuse. The fans deserve better. LGBTQ youth and adults deserve better.

Eric Waters deserves better, too. He deserves a chance to mature and grow into a man who is proud of the role he played in creating a more tolerant culture in the NFL, a good man who can teach his future children about the value of tolerance and respect. That’s a legacy that will transcend any individual professional accomplishment.

That’s my preference for Eric Waters – that he grows into the man he is meant to be, not remain hamstrung by outdated notions and bitterness. In his photos, he looks like a sweet guy, actually. He deserves better role models that unrepentant Joey Porter.

I hope the Steelers don’t let any of us down. They are far behind the curve from the Pirates and the Penguins in terms of their participation in Next Pittsburgh. Interviews like this don’t help.

Sigh.

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