No Millen Fine Sends Wrong Message

(This story was published in 2003).

By: BIlly Witz

Los Angeles Daily News

(Reprinted with permission)

If Franz Kafka were alive today, the Czech author wouldn't have to look far to spin a tale of absurdity, angst and alienation. He'd just have to watch the NFL.

In a one-week span, the NFL levied a $30,000 fine on New Orleans Saints receiver Joe Horn for pulling a cell phone out of a goal post padding and phoning home after he scored a touchdown. Can you hear me now? The league docked Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Johnson $10,000 not for uttering a word, but for pulling a sign out of a snow bank asking the league to please not fine him. A sign of another sort, a cross, that decorated a baseball cap of Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna cost him $5,000.

Meanwhile, Detroit Lions president Matt Millen engages in a shouting match with Kansas City Chiefs receiver Johnnie Morton -- whom Millen once cut. After Morton tells Millen to kiss his behind and heads into the locker room, Millen yells out:

"You faggot. Yeah, you heard me. You faggot."

And the NFL does ... well, we're still waiting.

A league spokesman said Millen has apologized, he's been justly criticized for his outburst and a fine would serve no meaningful purpose. The NFL considers it an internal matter for the Lions.

And, so, the matter is swept politely under the rug. In fact, much the way it's been gathering dust all week.

It's been the Horn case, and not Millen, that has dominated the NFL discourse nationally. An Internet search found four times as many references to Horn as to Millen, and newspaper accounts are even more one-sided. The three largest papers in Los Angeles -- the Daily News, the Times and the Orange County Register -- each ran stories on their sports fronts about Horn, yet Millen was kept inside, often buried in an NFL roundup.

Part of the reason, certainly, goes back to the old theorem of social critic Marshall McLuhan: the medium is the message. Horn's stunt was captured on television. Millen's slur was captured only by eyewitnesses.

But that's only part of it.

"Rightly or wrongly, the Joe Horn story had all the right stuff going for it," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "It's a safe entertaining debate that the sports media loves to latch itself onto, whereas the Millen thing isn't highly debatable. Sports has always meant to be an escape and the issue with Millen has a larger, deeper set of issues."

Ones with which much of society still isn't comfortable. Imagine if Millen had shouted the N-word instead. Or, perhaps a slur against Jews, Asians or any other ethnic or religious group.

"It's such a double standard," said Cyd Zeigler Jr., who runs a gay sports Web site, Outsports.com. "It's another example of the good old boys network: The fun, young, hip black athlete can't hold up a cell phone or a sign, but the old white guy can say whatever he wants."

Zeigler credits baseball for fining John Rocker after his infamous remarks about New York subway patrons. The NFL, he says, never has fined anyone for making homophobic comments -- be it Jeremy Shockey, Garrison Hearst or now Millen.

"You can only take one thing from it: It's OK," Zeigler said. "Do whatever you want to gay people, just apologize for it."

What makes Millen's comments more egregious is that he's no longer a player, but management. The only one above him on the depth chart is Lions owner William Ford.

True, Millen apologized. Yet it's easy to wonder about his sincerity since, as part of a statement he made the day after his confrontation with Morton, Millen said: "I apologize if I offended anyone." And if he didn't offend anyone?

The implication being he doesn't really think he did anything wrong. If you're gay and happen to be one of the roughly 200 people in the Lions' organization working under Millen, how comfortable have you been at work this week?

Chances are not as comfortable as if you worked for the Ford family's other endeavor, Ford Motor Co. In its employee handbook is a non-discrimination policy that covers sexual orientation. Also, the company extends domestic-partner benefits to its employees -- something only the San Francisco 49ers do in the NFL.

Ironically, Ford recently was honored by a gay rights advocacy group for its commitment to diversity.

That the NFL has passed the issue on to the Lions with little public comment might not be a coincidence, according to Swangard.

"I would not believe there's been no interaction between the league and Millen, but the discussions are in a different forum (than Horn)," he said. "It's one of those issues where all the stakeholders are dealing with it in a less public way.

"It's a delicate thing. From a (public relations) standpoint, you don't want to do something that inflames or attaches the league to the issue. They'd just as soon see the issue die in the public eye even though they're willing to take a hit in stepping in on celebrations. It's not as if (the talk about celebrations) is going to hurt the (NFL) brand."

This likely is small consolation to three former NFL players -- Dave Kopay, Esera Tuolo and Roy Simmons -- who came out only after their careers were over. Or the others like them in pro, college or high school locker rooms.

"For the NFL to finally say, 'No, this is off limits,' would help stop this stuff," Zeigler said. "I keep thinking about the 15-year-old kid playing for East Podunk High in Alabama who's got a crush on the tight end and he sees this stuff over and over again. When the NFL stops this, it will trickle down to the high school level."

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello expressed unequivocally that Millen's comments were offensive and inappropriate. However, he saw nothing incongruous that the league would fine Horn and not Millen.

"One has absolutely nothing to do with the other," Aiello said. "What Joe Horn did broke a specific rule. Matt Millen has been widely condemned and acknowledges his mistake. A league fine would be punitive and meaningless. What would it accomplish?

Just this: The NFL is sending a message with its fine to Horn. It's also sending one by not fining Millen.

Don't come out of the closet -- or the cave.

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