According to the collective bargaining agreement between the National Football League and its players association, discrimination based on sexual orientation is banned. The new protection was added to the 2011 labor agreement without much fanfare, likely through the efforts of Ted Olson and David Boies, who despite respectively representing the union and the owners during negotiations, had previously worked together in 2010 to overturn California’s ban on marriage equality.
It represents a step forward, even if there was some stumbling backwards in the lead up to the Super Bowl when San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver told reporters that there wasn’t a gay football player on his team, and if there was he wouldn’t want to play with him. This is worth mentioning because of a recent report from Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk revealing that teams at the NFL combine, scouting potential picks for the upcoming draft, want to know if Manti Te’o is in fact a homosexual.
The elephant in the room for many scouts relates to the question that Katie Couric abruptly posed to Te’o — and that Te’o answered in a way that speaks volumes as to the current culture of football: Is Te’o gay?
According to Business Insider, Florio made an appearance on the Dan Patrick Show on Monday to discuss the topic. In addition to restating his original report he conceded that teams probably wouldn’t be allowed to directly ask Te’o about his sexuality due to the current CBA. That’s an important point because it generally dismisses the notion that teams aren’t so interested in the preferred sexual partners of the linebacker as they are in how he handles questions about such matters in the future.
Questioning the appropriateness of such curiosity is collectively shrugged off by this point. It seems there’s an understanding that because of the unique situation presented by the current NFL and its history, some empathy is necessary in questioning why teams would be interested in Te’o's personal matters. Florio admits as much when he asks us to:
Step aside from the rest of reality and walk into the unique industry that is the NFL.
After all, a team drafting the Notre Dame graduate will most likely be making a multi-million dollar investment in a player, and as part of its due process in coming to that decision, it might be considered negligent to not examine the potential impact of that player in the locker room as well as his impact in public relations. It’s easy to fall in line with such thinking because on the surface it seems reasonable.
However, teams can’t rationalize sexual orientation as a topic of investigation. If we agree that discrimination is patently wrong – and the NFL and NFLPA did just that when it signed the current CBA – we can’t justify inquiries that would allow teams to quietly dismiss players on factors outside of their playing ability that include “race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or activity or lack of activity on behalf of the NFLPA.”
By agreeing to these terms and these definitions of discrimination, both parties have made an implicit commitment to fostering an environment of acceptance when it comes to judging and managing players. Investigating subjects to which its agreed to not discriminate against, no matter what the purpose is, creates the appearance of discrimination, even if none is intended. This directly contradicts the acceptance it supposedly champions.
As part of this, teams must be willing to accept both the benefits and drawbacks of having players from all races, religions, national origins and sexual orientations. That might translate into paying for additional sensitivity training or it might mean additional time spent by the coaching staff answering questions from the media. These are the consequences for doing the right thing with regard to its labor agreement when it extended its boundaries of discrimination.
It was the right thing to do with regard to reality. And it was the right thing to do with regard to the unique industry that is the NFL. Being right doesn’t make it easy or nullify requirements for extra effort to ensure that an agreed upon ideal is upheld. When difficulties arise, turning one’s back on the right agreement places one doubly in the wrong. A team inquiring as to Te’o's sexuality is endorsing discrimination and breaking the rules to which it previously agreed.