Grotesque NFL reaction to an openly gay player proves why Congress must pass non-discrimination law

By David Sirota , written on February 10, 2014

From The News Desk

If ever there was a perfect example of how discrimination against gay people operates in the 21st century American economy, and why the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is so necessary, the National Football League just provided it.

In a Sports Illustrated story about SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam's decision to publicly say he is gay, NFL officials declared that Sam will now face retribution from employers (read: teams) in the professional football industry:

"I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," said an NFL player personnel assistant. "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. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."...

"I just know with this going on this is going to drop him down," said a veteran NFL scout. "There's no question about it. It's human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote 'break that barrier?'"...

An NFL assistant coach called Sam's decision "not a smart move," as he said it "legitimately affects [his] potential earnings."...

"There are guys in locker rooms that maturity-wise cannot handle it or deal with the thought of that," the assistant coach said. "There's nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of the locker room. If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it? It's going to be a big distraction. That's the reality. It shouldn't be, but it will be." Whether or not Sam was ultimately going to end up a top draft pick based purely on his skill is not the point. What's important here is that NFL executives are openly admitting that regardless of his skill, Sam will suffer consequences specifically because he's gay and because he publicly says he is gay (for context, it is important to note that NFL's comments to this effect follow earlier accusations by former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe that he was fired for supporting marriage equality).

At a moral level, it is obviously sad to see NFL officials so openly rationalizing, justifying or otherwise tacitly condoning discrimination against someone on the basis of his sexual orientation.

At a legal level, it is downright infuriating because if the quality cited as reason to discriminate was something else - say, race - such comments would likely open the NFL up to a serious lawsuit. After all, current civil rights law (thankfully!) bars employment discrimination on the basis of race. However, until Congress finally passes ENDA, federal law doesn't explicitly bar such discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

But wait, you're saying. How do these quotes in the Sports Illustrated piece represent not just ugly homophobia, but also employment discrimination?

Go back and re-read the NFL's comments, but remove all the stuff about football and simply remember that the NFL is an employer, meaning that these quotes are potential employers talking about a potential employee.

Now ask yourself: should it be OK for officials at a $9-billion-a-year company - and/or more specifically, officials at individual multi-million-dollar companies/teams - to say that a potential future employee will be paid less (it "legitimately affects [his] potential earnings") because he is gay? Should it be OK for officials at those companies to say the future employee will not get a particular position within the company ("it's going to drop him down") because he is gay?

If your answer is "no," then you should probably call your congressperson and ask them to support ENDA.

[Image credit: Marcus Qwertyus (Creative Commons)]