The commercials weren't trying to break down gender stereotypes -- they were based on the assumption of a gender binary, with men rough, hairy, and by definition unattractive. Still, it was shocking to see a "macho" football player comfortable enough to engage in an intensely feminine-coded activity on tv. A lot of people began assuming that Joe was gay, and making homophobic spoofs and jokes.
The laid-back Namath dealt with the gay rumors gracefully, not with the hysterical denials of other celebrities of the 1970s and 1980s, like Tom Selleck and Tom Cruise. He seemed bemused by the fact that he was assumed gay in spite of his many girlfriends. In a 1979 interview in Esquire, he said, "Not only am I not gay, I'm not even bisexual."
In 2013, he told Huffington Post that he had a lot of gay friends, and "if you've got a hangup about it, I hope you can get over it."