Monday, February 10, 2014

Daring the NFL to discriminate

University of Missouri
The NFL has too many immature, homophobic or religiously conservative players who can't handle a gay teammate in their locker room. The NFL has too many owners, general managers or coaches who don't want to deal with the media onslaught that will come from drafting someone who is gay.

The NFL just isn't ready for an out gay player.

That's not my assessment, mind you. That's the opinion of NFL general managers and others interviewed by Sports Illustrated following the decision by Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, projected to be taken as high as the third round by some, to come out as gay before the NFL draft. According to the article, many believe Sam made a mistake by coming out. They think he will plummet in the draft and will lose six or seven figures in salary as a result.

For those wondering why he would do this, why he would make this an issue -- why any person, for that matter, wants to come out and potentially make so many around them uncomfortable:
The answer for a lot of people is it's to prevent discrimination rather than foster it.

The truth is, Sam was probably already in deep trouble. He had come out to his team last August and his sexual orientation reportedly was known by many in the NFL. Chances are, he was going to drop in the draft whether he came out or not.

So Sam faced a decision every gay, closeted employee or job applicant who is rumored to be gay comes up against that heterosexuals never experience. You can stay in the closet and hope it won't be held against you, knowing the decision to hide empowers an employer to discriminate without retribution.

Or you can come out and dare your employer to discriminate openly. He is daring the NFL, which already largely knew about his orientation and -- my guess -- was likely to discriminate against him because of it, to do it  for all to see.

And it's hard to believe, after reading that Sports Illustrated article, that Sam won't be discriminated against by teams. Recent history merely confirms it. Remember Kerry Rhodes? He was one of the better safeties in the game. But he was outed last year when he was a free agent and even though Rhodes denied being gay, he was never signed. Not a single team in the NFL was forced to face criticism for being homophobic because Rhodes never came out as gay. recently put together a handy chart of the top three needs of every team in the league going into the 2014 draft. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, the website listed Jacksonville, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Tennessee and Dallas as the teams needing a defensive end.

Will Sam, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, be drafted by any of those teams? Keep in mind that five are from the south, where there are no states that allow gay marriage. And Minnesota, the only northern team, is already embroiled in a controversy over an accusation by former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe that an assistant coach made anti-gay comments and was hostile to Kluwe's efforts to support gay rights.

Still, despite all that, it is because he came out that Sam will play in the NFL next season. The league simply can't afford to come off as openly homophobic if a player as talented as he is doesn't have a job. There will be no excuses, as there were with Jason Collins in the NBA when age and declining skills were enough to keep teams from being accused of discriminating against its first openly gay player. Collins has not played since coming out.

Here's betting there will be a lot of behind-the-scenes discussions with teams to assure that Sam will land in the right place, wherever that may be.

In the meantime, it's interesting to note that Sam came out during the Olympics in Sochi, just as Russia's anti-gay propaganda law has led to protests and boycotts of the Games.

As openly gay tennis legend Billie Jean King recently told CBS, "We need to shift to where it's a non-issue. When it's a non-issue it will mean we've arrived. It won't happen in my lifetime, but it definitely is a civil rights issue of the 21st century."

Gay athletes have not arrived yet, not as long as the door to the NFL remains closed. Finally, there is a player willing to push it open. But this isn't the end of discrimination. Hardly.

In 2014, Sam is forcing the NFL to finally reach a beginning.

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