NEW ORLEANS -- Just when this seemed about to become the deer antler spray Super Bowl, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver did a radio interview with alleged comedian Artie Lange in which Culliver sounded homophobic, Culliver saying he would not want a gay teammate.
Word spread in plenty of time for Thursday morning's 49ers media availability. Culliver, who had jokingly complained about being ignored earlier in the week, found himself surrounded by dozens of reporters, by far the largest contingent drawn by any 49er, including quarterback Colin Kapepernick.
"That's not what's in my heart," Culliver said, echoing what 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh had told reporters about his view of Culliver minutes before. "Everyone is treated equally in our locker room."
"There's not malice in his heart," Harbaugh said. "He's not an ugly person. He's not a discriminatory person. I really believe that this is something that he'll learn and grow from."
Culliver said he is "sorry if he offended anyone," and added that "They were very ugly comments."
But as Culliver, his teammates, and then an hour or so later, the Baltimore Ravens discussed the matter, it became less about what Culliver said and more about a big topic in pro sports that hadn't found a platform this week before Culliver gave it one -- athletes' attitudes toward homosexuality, and the fact that no active pro U.S. team sport member has ever come out while still playing.
For the 49ers, who play in the most gay-friendly American city, this is a big deal, and it takes on evern more relevance given the reports earlier this week of former 49ers offensive tackle Kwame Harris's spat with a person described as an ex-boyfriend.
"It’s surprising that in 2013 Chris Culliver would use his 15 minutes (of fame) to spread vitriol and hate,” Harris, the 49ers' 203 first-round pick, told NBC Bay Area. “I recognize that these are comments that he may come to regret and that he may come to see that gay people are not so different than straight people.”
Harris played in San Francisco from 2003-2007.
"Who knows? There could be somebody gay in our locker room right now, who's scared to come out," said 49ers safety Donte Whitner, who has spoken out for gay rights. Whitner was among several players Thursday who said he has family members who are gay. "Which he has a right to be, if he is scared to come out, because of all of this, and how the teammates might feel. But I feel anybody can be who they want to be ... as long as you don't disrespect other people, and go about your own business, in your way, then I don't see a problem with it."
Whitner said he doesn't think we are at a point in our society where a player leaving high school could afford to come out, then play in college and in the NFL without incident.
"I don't think that bridge has been built yet," Whitner said.
Whitner said he blamed the comments on Culliver's youth. He said he talked to Culliver about how to handle Thursday's questions. "Meet it head on, and if you get the same question over and over, don't get frustrated," Whitner said he told Culliver.
The other 49ers safety, Dashon Goldson., said Harris "was a great guy" whom teammates did not know was gay when he played for them.
San Francisco running back Frank Gore said he knew Harris well, played with his brother Orien in college at Miami, never knew Kwame was gay, wouldn't have cared if he had known.
"He blocked for me when I gained almost 1,700 yards (in 2006). Don't make a difference to me," Gore said.