The topic of a gay player in the NFL Draft took center stage in the sports conversation when Manti Te'o competed in February's NFL Combine, even though Te'o says his fake girlfriend was not a cover for him being gay. At least two players say they were asked questions that seemed designed to discover their sexual orientation. It renewed the debate over whether an openly gay player can exist in the NFL.
One question that hasn't been directly addressed, though, is whether teams would shy away from drafting a player they privately know is gay. I am obviously not taking about an openly gay draft-eligible player, since we don't have one yet. With the 2013 draft starting April 25, I put this question to Bill Polian, a veteran general manager with the Bills, Panthers and Colts, whose teams won one Super Bowl and played in five others (he's the guy who drafted Peyton Manning). As a general manager, Polian was renowned for his excellent drafts. He is now an ESPN analyst, and is a great representative of the thinking of football front office people. I asked him:
You are a general manager and in the course of your pre-draft research you hear that a potential draftee might be gay. This person is not necessarily going to come out, but he is gay. If he fit your draft board needs, would knowing about his sexual orientation cause you to pass on him?
"No," Polian answered simply, as if the question was kind of silly and the answer obvious. When asked why, he elaborated: "I just don't think it's important. What a person does with their own time is their business, none of ours."
Polian's right. Winning is everything in the NFL. It's a high-pressure business where the right draft picks can mean a Super Bowl appearance and the wrong ones a high draft pick made the next season by a new general manager. There is not a lot of job security in the league as owners and fans have a win-now mentality. Entering the 2013 draft, there are 13 new coaches or general managers, who have one job -- winning. The idea that a team that needed a shutdown corner would pass on one who was rumored to be gay is silly. If a team did pass for that reason, I guarantee the next team that needed a cornerback would snap up this player immediately and thank their good fortune.
A player's sexual orientation could be one factor that teams weigh, not because they think having a gay player is a bad thing but more for the attention it would bring should that player ever come out. A well-regarded national NFL reporter, who asked not to be identified, put it to me this way:
"My impression from talking to people is that being gay would not disqualify players from being drafted by most teams, but most coaches would be more concerned about the potential distraction to the team the huge media attention and fan attention might create. They know it would be a story in every new city they went to during the season. That is a significant issue for coaches, though, so it's not one to be taken lightly. I don't think they'd worry so much about fitting in to the locker room and that stuff."
In an interview with Yahoo's Jason Cole, Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff echoed that line of thinking: "As you know, I'm about as liberal a person as it gets when it comes to how people live. You just want to know how you're going to deal with something." While those concerns are valid, they are ones that can be dealt it once a player makes the team. In his 24 years as an NFL GM, Polian can recall only one case where a player's sexual orientation came into play prior to the draft.
"The only time I can remember it ever even coming up was many, many years ago and I can't remember who the player is now, but there were some rumors circulating about some player's sexuality," he said. "But it wouldn't have been of any consequence to me, I can assure you of that."
NFL teams do tons of due diligence on draft prospects and little escapes them, so I am sure that rumors about certain players crop up. For example, in 2007, Maryland offensive lineman Akil Patterson was interviewed by a scout prior to the draft. The scout asked Patterson if he was gay. Patterson was a bit stunned (his college assistant coach had told the scout) and he said yes. "We've got a lot of guys in the league who are," the scout replied. Patterson wasn't drafted, but he said his being gay had nothing to do with it (he was not in the best shape and his love of football had waned.)
Some coaches have known as far back as the 1960s that there were gay players in the league. Vince Lombardi had a gay brother, Harold, whom he loved and supported. In his biography of Lombardi ("When Pride Still Mattered''), author David Maraniss told how the coach privately rooted for the Packers he knew were gay to make the team each season to prove they belonged. If Vince Lombardi didn't care in the 1960s, no GM in 2013 should either.
Once a player is drafted, the question becomes the one everyone is asking -- can a player come out openly? Polian looks at it from the team standpoint.
"Certainly, any team I was with had a strict policy that race, creed, religion, sexuality had no business being involved in anything we do," he said. "We're all football players, we're all on one team. Why is sexuality any different than race? We don't allow race to be an issue.
"That said, every human being is different and I recognize that every human being has different views on things privately. In the work place, you hope those views don't come into play, but I'm realistic enough to realize that at least on the surface they might. But usually players respect people who can help them win, they respect people who are good guys and I think that over time within the building, over a short time, it would be a non-issue. In the press, I'm afraid it wouldn't."
If Polian was still a general manager and one of his players told him he wanted to come out publicly, he would offer him some simple advice that all 32 teams should heed:
"Just be prepared for the consequences that will occur in the media and maybe even among some groups of fans. But if you understand those consequences and you've made your decision in a reasoned way, you have every reason to expect and get our support. You're one of our players."