You know it’s almost springtime in the NFL because pre-draft stupidity — if not outright bigotry — is blooming again. Another defiant team asked another promising prospect about his sexual preference during the scouting combine, and it has led to another round of national criticism and another admonishing league statement. When the controversy settles, the NFL will talk about lessons learned and issues discussed and policies reinforced, only to watch another embarrassing team ask another inappropriate question in a year or two and make claims of discrimination sprout anew.
It’s a semiannual concern now. Soon, the NFL will have to put the event on its calendar: March 1-April 1, open period for teams to show how backward and aloof the league can be. This is the third time in five years that a player has gone public with an example of a team defying league policies and, in some cases, federal and state equal employment opportunity laws to ask a sexuality question. This time, the bewildered interviewee was former LSU running back Derrius Guice, who is one of the top players at his position in the 2018 draft class. Guice told the story during an interview Wednesday on SiriusXM Radio.
“I go in one room, and a team will ask me do I like men, just to see my reaction,” Guice said. “I go in another room, they’ll try to bring up one of my family members or something and tell me, ‘Hey, I heard your mom sells herself. How do you feel about that?’ ”
It has been common for a long time to hear stories about the crazy questions that teams ask while interviewing draft prospects. In general, there’s nothing wrong with asking probing questions or offbeat things to determine the way a potential employee thinks. But there’s a line, and it is drawn long before we get to queries that can be construed as discriminatory. It is drawn long before we get to a coach or executive having the nerve to ask a player if his mother is a prostitute. Teams know it. The league reminds them about it every year, going as far as sending a memo with a few explicit no-nos, including asking whether an athlete is gay or straight. Still, teams disregard the instructions.
Two years ago, Atlanta assistant coach Marquand Manuel asked cornerback Eli Apple if he’s gay, and everyone exploded for 10 minutes, and Coach Dan Quinn apologized, and Manuel sought counseling, and later he spoke with great eloquence to Commissioner Roger Goodell about what he’d learned. Manuel seemed genuinely reformed. The sports world settled.
And now it’s happening again. Same issue, unknown team right now. It’s no different than in 2013, when Colorado tight end Nick Kasa said he was asked at the combine, “Do you like girls?” And it will happen again in 2019 or 2020 unless the NFL gets serious about punishing offenders.
This is another moment in which it would behoove the league to tell the people running these teams to emerge from the film room, look around, spend time with real people and realize how much the world is changing. Some NFL types would learn that they’re practically prehistoric creatures. This isn’t 2008, 1998 or even 1988. It’s 2018. They need to live in the now and do a better job caring about their players’ societal concerns, which could’ve minimized last season’s protests. They need to stop acting like they haven’t seen a Lamar Jackson before because there’s ample historic evidence — as well as tales of Jackson’s character — to make a team feel comfortable that the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback doesn’t need to move to wide receiver. And they need to be smart enough to understand that sexual orientation is inconsequential to evaluating a draft prospect.
Because they’re so bullheaded and defiant, the NFL needs to force them to get a clue. DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, offered an interesting idea for punishment: Ban the offending team from the combine. That certainly would get attention. So would a loss of draft picks and multimillion-dollar fines. To ensure better compliance with its policies, the league should consider investing resources in monitoring or recording combine interviews. It could get pricey. It could get complicated. But how much longer does the NFL want to be seen as tolerant of intolerant behavior? How much longer does it want to be humiliated by teams that refuse to heed its warnings about sensitivity toward draft prospects?
There should be no place for even the perception of homophobia in the NFL. Sports are supposed to be a great meritocracy, and when allowed to be, these games prove it true. The PyeongChang Olympics looked to be a seminal moment for openly gay athletes in the United States and beyond. But in big-time American team sports, there are still acres of room to grow. This continuing NFL fiasco is proof.
If it keeps up, there will come a moment when a bold athlete encounters the “Do you like men?” question and answers yes. Here’s hoping that athlete is one of the top five prospects in the draft, a can’t-miss, franchise-changing talent. Then, some nosy team will be forced to stop caring — about sexuality or about winning. If it ever happens, that team ought to choose wisely.
Or maybe that can’t-miss player will answer by asking, “Why should it matter?” And if we’re lucky, he’ll then tell the team that he’ll refuse to play there if it drafts him. He’ll have the power and the conviction to stand up for what’s right.
Of course, it would be better if the entity that already has power developed the conviction to stand up for what’s right. Your move, NFL. Stop the reckless behavior. Stand on the side of the Human Rights Campaign. End the fascination with who’s in or out of the closet, and while you’re at it, make all of your Archie Bunkers exit the film room.