When news broke that the highly-publicized death of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Teo’s girlfriend had never actually occurred, and that the girlfriend herself did not actually exist, one of the first things many people asked was about his sexuality. ABC host Katie Couric asked Te’o whether he was gay in his first public interview after the story broke, to which he replied, “No, far from it, far from it.”
But now National Football League teams want to know the same thing of the projected first-round draft pick at the league’s annual scouting combine, according to NBC and Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, who told radio host Dan Patrick that the issue of Te’o's sexuality has become “the elephant in the room” for NFL teams interested in drafting him. CBSSports.com’s Mike Freeman has the transcript, part of which is here:
“On the field, you still have to account for what happened in the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama,” Florio told the Dan Patrick Show. “Here’s the elephant in the room for the teams and it shouldn’t matter, but we have to step aside from the rest of reality and walk into the unique industry that is the NFL. Teams want to know whether Manti Te’o is gay. They just want to know. They want to know because in an NFL locker room, it’s a different world. It shouldn’t be that way.” [...]
Patrick interrupted Florio to ask: “You’re telling me that you’re hearing from teams who want to know this, but how do you ask it? Are they trying to find a finesse way to ask that question, or are they going to do investigative work on finding out if Manti Te’o is gay?”
Florio said: “It’s been described to me as the proverbial elephant in the room and I don’t think anyone knows how to solve this dilemma yet. It’s just that they want to know what they’re getting. They want to know what issues they may be dealing with down the road. We just assumed that at some point there would be an openly gay player in an NFL locker room and the team would have to work with the realities and make sure that everything’s fine.”
In 2011, the NFL and the NFL Players Association added sexual orientation to the league’s nondiscrimination statute, effectively barring NFL teams from using sexuality as a factor in employment decisions, so if NFL teams are asking Te’o about his sexuality, they could be in violation of that policy. But even if it isn’t, and even if that statute didn’t exist, NFL teams shouldn’t be asking that question. Though there are no openly gay players in the NFL, multiple former players have opened up about their sexuality after retirement. The teams have no right or reason to know about a player’s private life, especially when it won’t affect the way he plays the game he is being paid to play.
But the NFL teams who asked this question aren’t alone in being wrong. So is Florio. He insisted repeatedly in the interview with Patrick that “it shouldn’t matter” if Te’o is gay, and yet he passed on the fact that Te’o was being judged based in part on his sexuality, openly speculating that Te’o may in fact be gay while hiding behind anonymous sources to do it. Granting anonymity to those sources and their concerns about Te’o's personal life gave the queries an air of legitimacy, even though asking not to be named is a tacit admission that asking about Te’o's sexuality is something these sources would be embarrassed to do in public. In effect, they’ve persuaded Florio to do it for them. But if Florio truly believes “it shouldn’t matter,” he ought to treat it like that by condemning the questions instead of acting as a stalking horse for them. Instead, Florio painted Te’o's situation as a “dilemma” and a “distraction” that he and his future team will have to overcome.
Te’o, like every other player at the combine, should be judged on his performance, both on the field and in his interviews. But invasive questions about his sexuality shouldn’t be a part of that process, both because he has already answered them and because even if he (or any other player) were gay, it is his choice to decide whether, and how, he wants to open up publicly about it. One would hope that when a gay player does talk openly about his sexuality, he would be supported by his teammates, his team, and the league, and treated fairly and responsibly by reporters like Florio. Unfortunately, this episode makes it obvious that the NFL hasn’t yet reached that point.