An NFL trailer at the New Meadowlands Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Reuters/Mike Segar)
If you harbor the quaint notion that whom you sleep with is your own business, you might want to forgo dreams of playing in the National Football League.
According to NBC’s Mike Florio, NFL teams are asking in interviews with prospect Manti Te’o whether the Notre Dame All-American is gay. They think, in Florio’s words, that they are a “unique business” and if they are going to invest money in the scandal-plagued star, they have the right to know where he goes and whom he knows in the privacy of his home. As one former NFL executive said to me in a statement that speaks volumes, “We feel like we have the right to look under the hood.”
This line of questioning also reaches far beyond Manti Te’o and his unique story of fake girlfriends and real hoaxes. Prospect Nick Kasa, speaking at the NFL’s combine this week, broke the seal of silence on the interview process for prospective rookies. He said to ESPN Radio in Denver, “They ask you like, ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ ‘Are you married?’ ‘Do you like girls?’ Those kinds of things, and you know it was just kind of weird. But they would ask you with a straight face, and it’s a pretty weird experience altogether.”
In some respect this is no more “weird” that the entire combine process where players stand on cement blocks while they are poked, measured and squeezed like GMs are looking for fresh cassavas. But these questions are worse than “weird”. They’re actually illegal. I received word about the matter from NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith. He said to me, “I know that the NFL agrees that these types of questions violate the law, our CBA [collective bargaining agreement] and player rights. I hope that they will seek out information as to what teams have engaged in this type of discrimination and we should then discuss appropriate discipline.”
This line of questioning also runs deeper than a few over-zealous general managers in an image-conscious league. It is, according Wade Davis, a longstanding practice. Davis should certainly know. The ex-player went through four different NFL training camps. When practice was over, he would go to strip clubs with teammates in an effort to fit in. After retiring in 2006, he became one of the few former players to publicly come out of the closet. He is now a speaker and activist who sits on the board of You Can Play, an organization devoted to combating homophobia in sports. He said to me, “Regardless of the reason, [these questions are] a completely inappropriate and illegal practice that has been going on since I was playing. In addition, this line of questioning offers players a no-win situation because there can only be one ‘acceptable’ answer to questions around someone’s sexuality. The questioning further reinforces stereotypes around what type of player or players the NFL wants.”
This reinforcement of stereotypes is more than illegal. It’s immoral. Hudson Taylor was one of the all-time great NCAA wrestlers before starting the organization Athlete Ally, dedicated to “educating, encouraging and empowering straight athlete allies to combat homophobia and transphobia in sports.” As Taylor said to me, “A person is not going to come out until he or she feels comfortable doing so. It’s a personal choice, and putting athletes on the spot is a sure fire way of pressuring them to deny their sexual orientations. These questions can result in lifelong struggles for an athlete.”
The most common justification for these kinds of questions, almost always made anonymously, is that management has an obligation to team chemistry, and bringing in a player who might be gay would disrupt that the delicate ecosystem that is an NFL clubhouse. It’s worth noting that these were the exact reasons given by Major League Baseball for the slow pace in signing African-American players after Jackie Robinson broke the “color line” in 1947. These reasons were nonsense then and they’re nonsense now. Anyone who has played team sports knows that people in authority set the tone in a locker room. If management, coaches and star players stand up and say, “Anti-gay bigotry has no place here,” then that would be the law of the land. When then–Knicks coach Isiah Thomas was asked if it would be an issue if he had a gay player on his team, he said, “I can’t speak for somebody else’s locker room, but if it’s in mine, we won’t have a problem. I’ll make damn sure there’s no problem…. We’re a diverse society and [on this team] we preach acceptance.”
It’s difficult not to see the connection between this line of questioning from the highest echelons of power and the NFL’s other off-season embarrassment. Teams did not hire a single person of color despite fifteen open head coaching and front office positions. Together, this all shows just how the NFL’s antediluvian, old boy institutions continue to hold sway. It also shows that without some kind of open struggle, this isn’t going to change. Smith is correct that such questions are illegal. What’s disturbing is how many of these execs consider themselves above the law.
Intruding on employees’ health and nutritional habits is, unlike interrogating them on their sex lives, legal. Read Steve Early’s take on corporate “wellness” programs.