This week has seen an explosion of conversation about whether NFL teams can and should be asking prospective draftees if they're gay. The NFL, NFLPA and seemingly every talking head have come to the same conclusion: The question is off-limits.
But I'm left in a quandary, because asking about someone's sexual orientation doesn't bother me. In fact, publicly avoiding the question seems to do more harm than good.
There's nothing wrong with being gay, so to ask someone a question about it shouldn't be an issue. There's nothing inherently wrong with asking someone if they are gay. Certainly it puts the person on the spot (like every other combine question intends to do), and certainly if they are closeted they may not be willing to reveal the truth. But when we avoid simply asking the question of people, we contribute to a cultural tenor that says, "Being gay is something to be avoided."
How far do we take this avoidance of the question? Athletes are commonly asked, "Do you have a girlfriend?" It's a legitimate question. As you get to know a potential multi-million-dollar employee, there is no harm in just getting to know someone and their personal life. Personal questions like that have been part of every job interview I've ever had.
So what if a team asked, "Do you have a boyfriend?" Is that so terribly wrong? I've pushed for equality for LGBT people most of my adult life. Part of that equality is being treated the same, having our issues recognized in the same way.
So what would be wrong with asking an athlete if he has a boyfriend? What's the difference between asking him that or "Are you gay?" Or "Do you like girls?" It's all just semantics.
If I were the GM of an NFL team, I would want to ask the question because there are legitimate reasons to want to know. But the root of those reasons isn't whether the athlete prefers sex with men, it's whether he's honest about it.
The assumption by many is that NFL teams want to know a player's sexual orientation so they can avoid drafting him. I don't think that's it.
NFL locker rooms are unique work environments. It's not like going to an office with desks and a water cooler. Athletes are sleeping in the same rooms together, facing national scrutiny together, getting their bodies physically beaten together.
For teams, coaches - and yes, other athletes and employees - being honest and trustworthy in that pressure-cooker environment is far more important than being straight.
"With teammates you have to be trustworthy," LeBron James said several years ago when former NBA player John Amaechi came out. "And if you're gay and you're not admitting that you are, then you are not trustworthy. So that's like the No. 1 thing as teammates - we all trust each other. You've heard of the in-room, locker-room code. What happens in the locker room stays in there. It's a trust factor, honestly. A big trust factor."
"Actually, I would like it better [if a teammate came out]," Spikes said. "Because I like to be transparent. If it's something that's close to your heart, everybody should be transparent about it. You may not agree with what everybody does in life, but you can respect it. And as long as you can respect everybody's individual beliefs, then you can move on down the line. They know where you stand, and you know where they stand. And at the end of the day, that's all you have is respect."
The potential problems of a closeted athlete far outweigh those of an honest, openly gay player. A team will deal with a gay player. There will be a day or two of media, guys will get it out of their system, and then everyone will get back to football.
But a closeted athlete invites a host of issues that eat at a team and the performance of its players over a period of weeks, months or seasons. Rumors. Secrets. God forbid, black-mail. While a minority of players may not like the fact that they have a gay teammate, no one's sexual orientation will undermine team unity; These potential side effects of a closeted player could.
If I were the GM of an NFL team, I would be far more interested in any athlete who's honest about his sexual orientation than I would be in a closeted player. And I would want to ask the question.
With all that said, the NFL and the 32 franchises currently have not earned the right to ask that very question or inquire about it in any way.
The league's collective bargaining agreement now includes sexual-orientation protection. Just like a potential employer cannot ask an interviewee how old they are (age discrimination), NFL teams can't ask if a potential employee is gay.
Some people like John Clayton have said teams that asked the question are in violation of state and Federal law, but that's not the case. There is no Federal law that prohibits an employer for hiring or firing someone because they are gay. And the state of Indiana, where the NFL combine is held, also has no protection. In fact, only 12 of the 32 NFL teams play in a state that protects LGBT people from employment discrimination. The CBA gives gay athletes that protection.
But even if the CBA wasn't in place, the NFL's failure to properly address issues of homophobia in the League bars them from the right to ask these questions.
Certainly there are teams that have created a welcome environment for gay athletes. The New England Patriots are one of those teams. When I asked Patriots spokesman Stacey James if his team had asked potential draftees about their sexual orientation, he was quick to respond: "You can cross the Patriots off that list. We did not ask that question of any candidates."
The NFL also inserted sexual-orientation protection into the collective bargaining agreement. That's awesome and a huge step! It helps a lot, and they and the NFLPA deserve big kudos for getting that done.
But the NFL simply hasn't done enough to protect openly gay athletes. While a team may benefit more from an athlete being openly gay than from a closeted player, that player sees only pitfalls to being honest about who he is.
Where are the public voices of the NFL? Why won't Roger Goodell simply say in front of a camera, "If an athlete in the NFL chooses to come out of the closet, I will accept, embrace and fully support him"? Where are the team owners' statements? Why did the League stop including a sexual-orientation component of their rookie symposium? Why has only one NFL team done an It Gets Better video (which had to be removed from the IGB Web site earlier this year), none have produced a You Can Play video, and only a small handful of voices have emerged from the NFL as committed allies?
Until these things happen, the NFL and the 32 member teams haven't earned the right to ask an athlete if he's gay, even if the question itself is harmless and appropriate. When they've dismantled the power of homophobia in the League, and there are happy, successful openly gay players in the League, then we can talk.