Players' Taunts Undermine The New York Giants' Inclusive Message

— -- The moment was almost bigger than 18-year-old Ashton Searls could handle. On a cold but bright day at MetLife Stadium, Searls husked his coat so his gray shirt with "You Can Play" and the New York Giants logo would show, and he jogged out to the middle of the turf field.

There were fireworks as each of the Giants ran through his group of LGBT students, friends and corporate supporters before the team played the undefeated Carolina Panthers.

"I almost had a heart attack, I wanted to pass out," Searls said with a smile, "but it was a good pass out."

The Giants' front office has been deliberate about its support of You Can Play, a group dedicated to the inclusion of LGBT athletes in sports, and other like-minded groups. In a recent interview with espnW, Giants owner John Mara described it as the "right thing to do."

Sports, particularly football, have been one of those cultural spaces where open homophobia has been most entrenched. We have seen it in the reaction to Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend on live TV after the St. Louis Rams drafted him and in the slurs that are sometimes thrown around on the field during the game.

On Sunday, Josh Norman and Odell Beckham Jr. reportedly joined in that unsporting tradition during a heated contest that came to resemble a steel-cage fight as much as a contest between an excellent young wide receiver and the talented cornerback assigned to cover him.

Those 90 representatives of the You Can Play Project and the Hetrick-Martin Institute in the plush fifth-floor suites filled with food and drink couldn't hear the specifics of what was said on the field, but the slurs might have sounded familiar.

Ballerina. Michael Jackson. These were some of the terms Norman used to describe Beckham in his official post-game news conference. Fellow Panthers cornerback Cortland Finnegan speculated their disagreement may have been over a "female." As he came off the field, Norman told Steve Overmyer of CBS, "F--- him, he's a b----."

Wade Davis, a former NFL player who is now the executive director of You Can Play, said misogyny and homophobia are just two sides of the same coin, and the language can inhibit gay players from feeling totally safe on a playing field.

"Men have been subconsciously trained to think of women as less than," Davis said. "Your sharpest weapon is to call someone a woman or female."

Davis said in the heat of the competition players revert back to what they know.

"I can say that because I did it," said Davis, who came out after he retired.

Davis said the Giants hosted him last year to discuss sports and sexuality with players and staff, and the 40-minute session turned into two hours -- "one of the best exchanges I've ever had with a team," he said. The first player who approached him afterward to talk about it later was Beckham, and the two have become friends.

Younger players like Beckham are less likely to fear a stigma for behavior that wouldn't fit with rigidly masculine expectations in football, Davis said. And yet Norman's gender-related taunts show that the cultural expectations are still there.

Davis said the taunts won't ruin their experience at the Giants -- that would be impossible -- but "it gives us another opportunity to have a nuanced conversation."

The invitation to the game was actually part of a larger exchange, when place-holder Zak DeOssie, tight end Jerome Cunningham and assistant general manager Kevin Abrams visited the group at the institute's Newark space.

Searls said when he was told they were going to a Giants game to sit "in a box" he was confused. "I was like, what kind of a box?" he says with a laugh.

During halftime Sunday, a diverse group of supporters discussed their journey with the kids, offering to help guide with advice or mentorship.

Anna Aagenes, a VP of program development, said the day had an impact on the students. High school is when LGBT kids start to drop out of sports over concerns they might not conform.

Said Aagenes, "One of the young girls in the program came up to me and said, 'I think I might play sports because there's a place for me."