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We should never hear about a gay NFL player being a media ‘distraction’ ever again

The whole ‘distraction’ myth has always been a big lie, with this weekend as evidence.

St. Louis Rams 2014 Draft Class News Conference
Michael Sam asked media questions and was never a “distraction” to the St. Louis Rams.
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

For years we have heard people in and around the NFL decry gay athletes coming out because of the “distraction” they could create for their team. More TV cameras, more reporters, more focus on things other than the X’s and O’s of football. It has to be avoided at all costs, the mantra goes.

We should never have to hear that nonsense ever again.

After watching the events of the last week unfold in the NFL, the idea of the media attention to a gay athlete being something to avoid seems uninformed at best — bigoted and offensive at worst. The NFL, its owners, its coaches, its players and the media that cover the league have fully embraced the idea of controversial protests during the national anthem at its own games.

Many more cameras. Many more questions. Much more talk about everything but what actually happened on the field.

So many more “distractions,” it would be literally impossible to keep count. It’s fine by me! But don’t ever talk about a single gay athlete being a media distraction. Ever. Again.

Flipping around the channels at the start of Sunday’s games, the national anthem protests were a big story on every broadcast, in addition to special live coverage on news networks like CNN. The mainstream media have been obsessed with the issue, and the sports media have plastered coverage of it across front pages and social media for the last week.

It’s gotten so “distracting” that DirecTV is now allowing subscribers to cancel their subscription to NFL Sunday Ticket if they want to avoid the “distracting” politicization of the NFL. I don’t remember a flood of fans canceling subscriptions after Michael Sam kissed his boyfriend.

The response from players, coaches, owners, league executives and the sports media to all of the “distraction”? Plans for continued protests and keeping the “distraction” in everyone’s view. Full speed ahead.

But a gay NFL player coming out is some crisis to be avoided at all costs? Spare me the ignorance and bigotry.

Just one example of that ignorance and bigotry has come from none other than NBC Sports NFL analyst Tony Dungy, who has celebrated the protests:

Yet three years ago he said he didn’t want Michael Sam on his team after the NFL rookie came out publicly and was drafted. Dungy said at the time he didn’t want Sam on his team because — wait for it — “the media attention that comes with it will be a distraction.”

Dungy’s hypocrisy has been well-documented on this site, again showcased by the fact that now, as part of the media, he is going to players and “distracting” them with questions about their protests.

Others, like ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, promoted the idea of gay athletes being a — wait for it — “distraction” to their teams, while now recently taking to task people who criticize athletes protesting during the national anthem.

When Michael Sam came out, articles in Sports Illustrated by Pete Thamel and Peter King chronicled numerous NFL front-office team execs and coaches bemoaning the terrible — wait for it — media “distraction” Sam would bring to their team.

Now they are all-in with hundreds of players protesting and countless news cycles dominated by football and politics, owners expressing total support and front offices having their players’ backs.

This isn’t at all a critique of their embrace of the protests. On the contrary, they should offer the same embrace to gay athletes coming out, not drop them down their draft board and dismiss them as a “distraction.”

Before you start claiming that protests are about social justice and the common good and a gay athlete isn’t, all you have to do is look at suicide and bullying statistics for gay teenagers to know how very much a gay NFL player coming out is about social justice and the common good.

The quality of games on Sunday speaks to the overblown importance of “distractions,” be they national anthem protests, a father dying, or an athlete coming out. Half of Sunday’s games were decided by a touchdown or less. Spectacular plays by Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks, Jordy Nelson, Deshaun Watson and others made highlight reels.

The games this week were fun to watch.

To be sure, the Pittsburgh Steelers laid an egg on Sunday, losing to the winless Chicago Bears and looking bad doing it. The Steelers chose to stay away from the field during the national anthem, while one player, Bronze Star-winning military veteran Alejandro Villanueva, stood at attention on the sidelines (intentionally or not). Did the Steelers players and coaches “distract” themselves into a loss? Only they know the truth.

It sure didn’t “distract” the Dallas Cowboys, who spent, by all accounts, a lot of time considering and planning their own demonstration, then getting a big road win.

Professional athletes know how to deal with “distractions.” Good coaches know how to focus their staff and players and win football games no matter what is happening on or off the field.

Still, “experts” talk about a gay NFL player coming out publicly being some existential “distraction” to a team’s season. The team would, according to the thinking, dive into a tailspin due to the weight of some extra cameras at press conferences and a couple questions about having a — gulp — gay athlete on the team.

Of course, this is blown out of proportion by people who don’t know what they are talking about. The fact is, gay athletes coming out haven’t hurt any teams, be they in college or the pros, football, basketball or soccer.

Yet the nonsense about gay athletes being this insurmountable “distraction” persists.

After the last few days, we better not hear this ever, ever again.