Much to my chagrin, the sports community continues to lag behind the rest of society in struggles against homophobia. There's no inherent connection between athletics and gay rights, which makes it all the more powerful when a prominent athlete or organization condemns homosexuality as an inappropriate intrusion into the domain of competition.
In the buildup to the Super Bowl, the media's voracious appetite for football stories could not be satisfied with tales of the young Harbaugh boys, foreshadowing their eventual matchup as opposing head coaches in the quest for a ring. Thus, it was no surprise that the country was enraptured by the unceasing coverage of the Manti Te'o hoax. It had all the makings of a great American scandal football, Twitter and phantom relationships.
When the story broke, the subtext of any Te'ogate discussion revolved around two questions: Could Te'o be this ruthlessly opportunistic? And why would a Heisman Trophy candidate at football-crazed Notre Dame University need or want to resort to an Internet-based girlfriend? From my limited experience in the sphere of love, romantic engagements tend to be the most enjoyable when both of those involved are, in fact, in the same area code.
As the "Catfish" ploy came into focus, Te'o's role in the story proved to be that of the victim, not the insidious perpetrator many (including this column) rashly concluded nor the closeted star that couldn't bear to reveal the truth. Yet this week, at the NFL Scouting Combine in the lead up to the 2013 NFL Draft, the question of sexual orientation still weighed on the minds of scouts and front office officials throughout the league.
According to NBC's Mike Florio, the subject of potential draftees' sexuality was the "elephant in the room" for teams at the Combine. Yesterday, this distressing claim was given credence when the NFL announced it would investigate claims from University of Colorado tight end Nick Kasa that he was asked a series of questions aimed to establish his sexual orientation. Similar questions were asked of Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson and Michigan State running back Le'veon Bell.
This is distressing because football players are fairly large there is not much room for a horde of elephants. At least there should not be. A scout's job should not resemble that of a homophobic public relations expert. The focus should be on talent, because talent begets winning.
There will always be a physical boundary, usually in the form of chalk, paint or fence, that separates formal competition from what happens outside of it, and those spheres are not supposed to overlap.
It should not matter whether you go home to someone of the same sex or the opposite sex. When you're on the field or on the court, your physical abilities speak for themselves. There is no gay or straight way to force a fumble or score a touchdown. There are only results. Winning or losing.
But in the same way that American generals lamented the repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, scouts may have actually felt as if they were analyzing a factor in the on-field product when they forayed into the soon-to-be professional athletes' personal lives. "Unit cohesion" was the Pentagon's preferred jargon for justifying the muffling of gay and lesbian personnel. As San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver confirmed the week before he participated in the Super Bowl, within the virile culture of professional sports, certain members of the locker room are uncomfortable with the prospects of a gay teammate.
"I don't do the gay guys, man. I don't do that," Culliver said. "Ain't got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up outta here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff. Can't be... in the locker room, nah."
Culliver has since apologized, retracted and done whatever else the 49ers' public relations experts recommended. But the logic behind publicly recalibrating Culliver's political correctness by no means resembles the internal decision-making processes of some NFL teams, as evidenced by the inappropriate, homophobic and potentially illegal questions asked at this year's Combine.
If players don't learn to tolerate homosexuality amongst their teammates and if their organizations continue to compound the masculine orthodoxy dominating locker rooms, nobody should expect a professional athlete to come out of the closet anytime soon.