NEW ORLEANS Chris Culliver apologized and apologized. He repeatedly recanted the ugly comments he uttered earlier in the week about players and the NFL and why gays need to keep their distance.
Those feelings were not truly in his heart? Not what he really feels?
Only Culliver can answer those questions. People feel what they feel.
People hate who they hate and love who they love. People have the right to own their personal beliefs, however ignorant and offensive and ill-informed.
"I don't do the gay guys, man," the 49ers nickel cornerback told comedian Artie Lange during Tuesday's media session. "We don't got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do."
Sadly, this is not a player standing alone on a limb. Culliver doesn't want to share locker-room real estate with gay teammates? He is far from alone.
The home away from home for NFL players has always been a uniquely intimidating environment, a place where machismo and a distorted perception of manhood are embraced and nurtured and rationalized. The scent of sweat and sense of manhood permeates the environment. This is their private turf, a place of unwritten rules and a code of conduct that discourages intruders.
If Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo's numbers are accurate, half of the NFL's players agree with Culliver: Gays are not welcome in the locker room.
Ayanbadejo, who is an outspoken advocate for gay rights and marriage one of a growing number of NFL players who are finally speaking out on the issue talked extensively about the situation during Thursday's media sessions. He was pressed for an answer, for an approach, for a solution.
"You can't fight hate with hate," he insisted. "You've got to fight hate with love."
And with education. And with exposure. And with a plan, both nationally and locally. A 2006 study conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA estimated there were roughly 94,000 gay adults one-in-seven residents living in the city of San Francisco; 256,000 in the San Francisco metro area; 1.3 million in California; and 8.8 million in the United States.
The number of gay athletes who compete in professional sports is uncertain, of course, mainly because of the hostile, chilling environment within the industry. But do the math. Kwame Harris isn't the only gay player listed on a 49ers roster.
"This is an issue that needs to be addressed," said 49ers safety Donte Whitner, who is closely involved with an anti-bullying campaign and has filmed public service announcements with teammates Ricky Jean Francois and Isaac Sopoaga. "There are more things we can do. The NFL has a rookie orientation that deals with a lot of things, and maybe the league can start saying, 'If you are gay, here's what you can do.' "
Earlier Thursday, 49ers CEO Jed York spoke forcefully on the matter. Seated in a small conference room in a downtown hotel, he referred to Culliver's remarks as "ignorant" and not reflective of the organization.
The organization has no plans to punish Culliver, York said, but urged his young player to follow through on his intentions to become involved with the Bay Area's gay and lesbian community.
Culliver responded Wednesday with a typical apology. He was contrite and subdued, even appeared a bit dazed when surrounded by wave after wave of reporters. The past few days have been miserable, he said, and he has had little sleep.
He has reached out to his mother and to his friends, had conversations with at least one relative who is gay, and discussed the matter at length with general manager Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh.
Asked to elaborate on the conversation with his coach, Culliver shook his head.
"We talked, and that's between us, about the whole situation and learning and growing from it," said the third-year pro. "He understands (that my initial remarks are) not what I feel in my heart."
Again, even a stethoscope provides little clarity on the issue. There is no empirical data on empathy. There is no peeking beneath the layers, no peering into the heart. But there are policies and there is legislation, and given the setting and circumstances, there is tremendous influence that can be wielded this week by the 49ers and the NFL.
This is the time to start using that pulpit, to become more proactive and more welcoming, and to change a locker-room culture that has endured through generations. It's the bullies who are unwelcome in the locker room, not players who don't fit the locker-room sexual stereotype.
"It pinches us a little bit," said Whitner, thoughtfully. "It pinches. Chris is a young guy, and I don't think he realized what he was doing. But it's on him. I told him to brace himself."