February 15

COMMENTARY: NFL needs to tear down wall of discrimination

Josh Levin

It made sense that someone like Jason Collins would be the first out gay man in one of the four major North American pro sports leagues. Collins, a 12-year NBA veteran and a Stanford graduate, had already proved his worth in the pros. There was no question that he could play, and that he wasn’t “a disruptive locker room presence,” whatever that euphemism is supposed to mean. He’d been in the league forever, and somehow, miracle of miracles, none of his teams had fallen to pieces on account of his homosexuality.

But Collins hasn’t been able to cut a deal with an NBA team since he came out to Sports Illustrated last April. Maybe that’s because he’s gay, and every franchise is too cowardly to sign him up. Or maybe it’s because he’s an old, defensive-minded center in a league that no longer prizes big men.

A little less than a year after his big announcement, it now seems fair to say that Collins is the exact kind of athlete who won’t be the first out gay man in American pro sports. He’s a borderline, so-so player. Risk-averse pro franchises can convince themselves that he’s just not worth the trouble.

Michael Sam, who came out in interviews with The New York Times and ESPN on Sunday, is not a borderline case. The 6-foot-3, 260-pound defensive end from the University of Missouri was the defensive player of the year in the SEC, the best conference in college football. He is on the cusp of the prime of his career, not the end of it.

By declaring that he’s gay before this May’s draft, Sam — projected by many as a third-round pick — is making a brave statement, one that’s also a challenge to the entire NFL. He will not make an announcement about his sexuality after he’s already signed a contract, nor after he retires. Sam wants every pro football decision maker to know he’s gay before he’s even in the league.

Sam, then, won’t be breaking down sports’ biggest barrier himself. He’s placed a sledgehammer at the feet of every NFL general manager. Now who will be brave enough to swing it?

There are 32 NFL teams, and some of them have probably started backing away from that sledgehammer. The Times’ John Branch reports that, prior to Sam’s coming out, various scouts asked his agents whether the player had a girlfriend. Though the NFL declared last year that this sort of discriminatory question is out of bounds, team personnel are either too prejudiced or too dumb to catch on.

It gets worse. In a piece for Sports Illustrated, Thayer Evans and Pete Thamel interviewed eight NFL coaches and executives who anonymously spewed out cretinous, outdated attitudes about sports and homosexuality. “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game,” said a player personnel assistant, oozing so much anonymous testosterone that it leaks off the page. “It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”

A former general manager said that homosexuality “will break a tie against that player” in the draft room. “Every time. Unless he’s Superman. Why? Not that they’re against gay people. It’s more that some players are going to look at you upside down. Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to the ‘Today Show.’ A general manager is going to ask, ‘Why are we going to do that to ourselves?’”

The cultural references here — Tom, Dick and Harry; Good Housekeeping — are telling. If I had to guess, this former general manager is an older man, a fellow who came of age when gay men had no choice but to hide in the shadows (or perhaps behind a dusty back issue of Good Housekeeping). Now, it’s a different world, both away from the gridiron and inside football locker rooms. Just as support of gay marriage is skyrocketing among young people, so will younger athletes come to accept that there are gay men playing beside them. The reluctant, tut-tutting former general managers will soon be outnumbered.

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