CULVER CITY, Calif. --- Michael Irvin gets a serious look in his eye and his baritone softens to almost a whisper when he talks about homosexuality in the National Football League. He's taking a serious approach -- and every opportunity -- to speak out about something he believes in, and he thinks now is the right time.
Irvin, the focus of a lengthy Out magazine piece about his experience of learning an older brother was gay and his own womanizing during his NFL career, believes the league is "in a different place" to deal with the subject.
But the obvious question is this: Why now? Why was Irvin's voice not heard during his 12-year playing career, his time in the Hall of Fame spotlight, or the hours he has spent behind a radio microphone or in front of a television camera?
"I'm not starting this now. I've been on this mission for the last three or four years," Irvin told NFL.com on Wednesday, after taping an interview for NFL Network. "Everyone is starting to show support now, which is great. ... But this is not new. ... We use avenues that are at our disposal to make it better.
"I'm as guilty as anyone out there, and I've said negative things, offensive things, without knowledge of it ... (which is) ignorance. I think we should all flip the coin and get knowledge out about not offending people and spread the knowledge about it. We did it out of ignorance. Let's make sure it doesn't perpetuate in ignorance."
Call it repentance or acceptance, but Irvin is trying to make right out of wrong. It's personal for Irvin, who learned at age 12 that he had a gay older brother, and he's on a mission to take what he calls the "bad decisions" he made off the field and help others learn from them.
Does he regret not doing it earlier?
"I wish I had an understanding of everything earlier. I really do," Irvin said. "Even watching the years with my brother, my focus was on being the best football player in the world. Now my focus is on, what are you going to put before God? What did you do to make it a better place? This is different."
Irvin is and has been a vocal supporter of gay marriage, as well as professional athletes who would be willing to come out. He paused Wednesday when asked if he would go so far as to encourage it, before reflecting on his past as a player who successfully hid a family secret.
"I would encourage it," Irvin finally said. "But I understand the fear and why they don't. Hopefully, the more and more we step up, people step out, speaking against it. Maybe we'll get that athlete to feel comfortable enough to say, 'This is who I am.' ... And you're going to have pain if you're hiding, because you're dealing with the pain of hiding and then dealing with the pain of the ignorance of the people around you."
Citing the overall population statistics, Irvin believes there "absolutely" are gay players in the NFL today. He brushes off the idea that it's easier to hold that opinion now that he's no longer in an NFL locker room, within a league some have long believed to be dominated by homophobic athletes. He's quick to insist that his CowboysSuper Bowl teams in the 1990s would have been able to accept a homosexual player.
Irvin also states with certainty that today's NFL players would be equally accepting. Irvin already has heard from some players -- and not in a negative sense. He doesn't expect a backlash from the inner circles of the league.
"The reality is I think we're in a different place. Really," Irvin said. "It used to be that we couldn't accept these (types of) things and still be tough. Anything that takes away from masculinity, we have an issue with it, because we thought it took away from it. Toughness comes in many forms.
"Once we get some knowledge of a situation, athletes will start pulling back. A lot of it has been out of ignorance. You don't know it hurts people the way it hurts people. I think we're in a place in this country where hopefully there won't be a backlash. I really do."