When University of Missouri football player Michael Sam told the New York Times in a Sunday interview that he was gay, players, pundits and ordinary people were quick to respond.
Mississippi State player Rufus Warren took to Twitter, saying “this is a MAN sport. And being gay is not a man.” Later the same day, Warren took down that tweet and apologized for the comment.
Unless Warren’s views evolved remarkably in the span of a few hours, I suspect he received some “counseling” from MSU authorities. It is more likely that Warren’s current opinion on the subject of homosexuality and football are reflected most accurately in his original tweet. I suspect the only thing he really learned is that some views are better kept to yourself.
This appeared to be the sentiment expressed by many, who view Sam’s announcement as a means of self-promotion. Sam should have just kept his “secret” to himself, the thinking goes.
That is a silly notion for two reasons: First, making the admission has damaged, not improved, his stock in the NFL. Before coming out, Sam was considered to be a mid-to-low draft choice this spring. Now, there is some speculation that he may not be drafted at all, a point we will get to in a moment.
Second, Sam’s motive in “outing” himself is consistent with what public relations experts routinely advocate: If there is some information that is about to come out that could be damaging, it’s best to act preemptively. By making the announcement himself, Sam had the first opportunity to address the matter on his terms. Sam had informed his Missouri teammates of his sexuality in August. In this age of social media, it’s astounding that this information had not leaked out long before Sunday. Even so, it was inevitable that NFL teams would discover this information given the exhaustive nature of the league’s background checks on potential draft picks.
Clearly, Sam’s admission was a necessity.
What is far more disturbing than questioning Sam’s motives is the reaction from some members of the NFL fraternity.
Former NFL head coach Herm Edwards said Sam’s admission will damage his draft stock because his sexual orientation will amount to “baggage” and could be a “distraction” for any team that might consider adding him to its roster. Many other current and former NFL players and coaches have expressed similar views.
Even for Edwards, who has a reputation for speaking before thinking, the assertions are troubling. You wonder if Edwards, who is black, would have considered the “baggage and distractions” that went along with Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color line in Major League Baseball in1942 as legitimate concerns. I think not.
Elsewhere, media that cover the NFL have framed this discussion by asking the question “Is the NFL ready for an openly gay player?”
The question itself is insulting. It is 2014 not 1914, after all. If not now, when? 2114?
And who says the NFL has the right to determine for itself when it is ready to say it is no longer acceptable to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation? It should not be forgotten that most NFL franchises are located in states where it is illegal for employers to discriminate on these grounds. All businesses in those states are subject to that law. To suggest that NFL teams alone can choose whether or not they want to abide by that law is absurd.
One Mississippi newspaper reporter asked the state’s university coaches if Mississippi was “ready” for gay players.
That question would be far better put to our state legislators.
In Mississippi, it is perfectly legal for employers to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. A company can refuse to hire an otherwise qualified gay person. It can also fire a person simply for being gay. Gay people can be denied promotions because of their sexual orientation, too.
Each session, our legislators produce almost 2,000 bills for consideration. We have seen bills to prevent things that have never happened (a bill banning human cloning) and bills to bring back things that never should have happened (a bill to allow the state to secede from the union).
What we never see is a bill that would end discrimination against gay people in the workplace.
It is clear Mississippi not only doesn’t oppose such discrimination, it actively promotes it.
Is the NFL ready for an openly gay player?
It won’t have a choice in the matter.
Is Mississippi ready to afford gay people the same rights all other enjoy?
Sadly, the state can choose for itself.
And the answer is no.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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