OpEd: NFL Players can be Rapists, Drug Traffickers, Dog Fighters, But Evidently Not Gay
This week top Republicans have joined the advocacy to ban a constitutional amendment against same sex marriage signaling a substantial shift in the rhetoric of their party and evidencing the next big step towards LGBT equality. This shift indicates major progress in terms of our society and culture’s views towards LGBT citizens. Yet, simultaneously a story is developing in the world of professional sports that showcases just how far we have to go until tolerance and acceptance are the way of life even in a world where machismo rules.
In a week where the focus should be on potential players’ skill sets and test scores, several players have come forward saying that they have been asked questions about their sexuality in interviews with NFL teams. However, the questions started much earlier for Manti Te’o, a linebacker from Notre Dame with NFL dreams, and have been the subject of national news. As his story has been thrust center stage, so has the NFL’s inappropriate focus on the sexuality of its players.
Even if you haven’t been listening to Pro Sports Talk Radio or watching the NFL Network, chances are that you’ve at least heard the name “Manti Te’o.” His name and story have been plastered across nighttime entertainment shows, the tabloids and TMZ. Before January 2013, his name triggered excitement on the college sports and NFL circuits for his dynamic play and leadership on the football field which helped lead Notre Dame to its first number one berth since 1993.
In January, his world was rocked and his image changed forever as his name became synonymous with deception, naiveté, and even lesser intelligence when it was revealed that he had allegedly been “catfished” by participating in an online romantic relationship with a woman who turned out to be man. This wasn’t just any online relationship either. Te’o, who was brought up in a strict Mormon home, claimed that he had lost his grandmother and his online girlfriend to cancer last fall. His journey to overcome tragedy in the midst of a spectacular football season was an inspirational cornerstone on every sports network this year.
On January 16, the website Deadspin revealed that Te’o had been the victim of an elaborate hoax. Te’o’s girlfriend was really Ronaiah Tuiasosopo – a football prospect in his own rite who would later claim that he had fallen in love with Te’o. Before the scandal broke, Te’o was heavily favored to be selected in the first round of this April’s NFL draft. However, in the days and months following the revelation of the hoax, not only did his draft stock fall but he plunged into a media frenzy where his character was repeatedly scrutinized.
Most of the mainstream media focused on one of two aspects of the story. First, did Te’o know his online girlfriend was a hoax and, if he did, did he use the sympathy for her death to catapult himself into the limelight? Second, if he didn’t know and was duped, what does that say about his gullibility/intelligence and will he be able to make in the NFL? Neither of these two questions is outrageous. The NFL, for years, has been saying it wants coaches to select “character” players in order to improve the tarnished reputation of its professional athletes. However, days after the scandal broke, a third question began to emerge: Is Manti Te’o gay?
Was the internet girlfriend contrived as a cover for Te’o’s homosexuality? If he had an internet girlfriend, he would never have to explain to his conservative friends and family much less an NFL team why he didn’t date girls on campus. Katie Couric, who interviewed Te’o, soon after the hoax fell apart, directly asked Te’o the question. Te’o definitively said “no” (several times in fact) and became defensive. Te’o emphatically stated that he was “far from it” and his emotional intensity when responding differed from that of other questions she’d asked. Still, the talk surrounding his sexuality diminished after the interview until this past week when Te’o attended the NFL combine.
Besides the physical drills, a huge component of the combine is to expose the young players to challenging media and team interviews to see how they perform under pressure on and off the field. Te’o’s media day was akin to a feeding frenzy. He was grilled by countless reporters about the hoax, but was never directly asked a question about his sexuality. However, an article emerged from an NFL insider that stated that that question was one that every NFL team wanted the answer to. Later in the combine week, it was revealed that two other players had had their sexuality directly questioned during their private interviews with individual teams. One player, Luke Kasa, stated that he was asked: ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ ‘Are you married?’ ‘Do you like girls?” Even Brendon Ayanbadejo, a current NFL player and outspoken supporter of marriage equality, urged the prospects at the combine to “say you’re straight” if they want a chance to play in the NFL.
I don’t know about you, but I find the intensity surrounding the question of Te’o’s sexuality and the fact that NFL teams are DIRECTLY asking potential players if they are gay alarming and discriminatory. Although the NFL’s official position is that these questions are inappropriate. Unofficially, NFL teams would probably say that they share the same concerns as the military did when the fight to repeal DADT was at its height. How will it change the locker room dynamic? What is the potential for some kind of abuse to occur? What effect would having an openly gay player have on the team dynamic?
There has never been an openly gay player in NFL history. Do you know what there has been? Convicted or alleged rapists, drug traffickers, drug users, dog fighters, and alleged murderers. Each of those potentially influential situations was investigated and an appropriate ban or fine was levied.
Having a conviction or even jail time on your record doesn’t preclude you from playing in the NFL. Many, and I do mean, many current players have records. And yet, it’s become an all too familiar situation—a normal occurrence if you will to employ such players. Even those who abuse drugs mid-season are still able to come back within 4 -6 weeks of their offense. Surely, that factors into the locker room mentality and the potential for inappropriate interactions to take place (selling drugs, etc). But these factors are generally accepted in the NFL community. Why is it that the potential for negative effects or abuse of these crimes outweighs those for an openly gay player? I think it’s a question of image.
I love football and I love the NFL. However, it is a testosterone fueled, machismo laden league where aggression and manliness are not only celebrated but can elevate a player to a god-like status. Is the NFL investigating Te’o and other players’ sexuality because they are worried about the effect of a gay player on the locker room? Or are they worried about the effect a gay player would have on the gladiator type image of the prototypical NFL warrior? Can a gay man truly play America’s favorite, aggressive, full contact sport and if he can—what does that say about the NFL elite? Can you imagine the stereotypes that would be questioned? Mind blowing.
Manti Te’o’s playing record speaks for itself. He’s had a phenomenal college career. His accomplishments on the field should earn him an NFL spot not his behavior or activity off the field. Off field behavior certainly doesn’t keep NFL stars from playing once they’re in the league. The double standard is not only obvious but predictable.
The NFL has taken an official stance of tolerance. They have launched an investigation into which teams are asking and I’m sure fines will follow. However, if Te’o is gay, as Michelangelo Signorile said in his related article “I’m worried about him.” Not because I think he’ll get abused in the locker room, because he’s a kid, whose dreams are on the brink of being shattered by the pressure surrounding this situation. He’s a kid who, up until a month and a half ago, was headed to penultimate stardom and who is now being subjected to intense speculation about his very private sexuality. Though a few NFL players have spoken out in support of equality they are few and far between. The closet doors remain screwed tightly shut in the NFL by masculinity and a culture of dominance.
Apryl Prentiss is a right wing dropout. Born and raised in Virginia Beach, VA and heavily involved in the evangelical Christian community for her entire life. She lives in Richmond, VA with her partner, Adrian, and enjoys trying to dialogue with those in the evangelical community about sexuality.
Love has no Labels campaign. The concept aims to open peoples understanding that love comes in all forms – “regardless of race, gender, disability, age or religion.”February 16, 2017
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