After a broad speech outlining the goals and mission of the union he directs, National Football League Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said Monday that having an openly gay player in the NFL will make both the league and the players union stronger, better organizations.
Smith’s keynote address at the first annual Sports and Law Symposium at American University’s Washington College of Law came the day after University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who is projected to be selected in May’s NFL Draft, came out publicly as gay. Smith spent his speech and the ensuing question-and-answer period talking about the “courageous” stands players had taken for health care benefits, pensions, higher salaries, and the basic right to organize, and he likened Sam’s willingness to come out despite the risk that it could damage his NFL Draft stock as a similar moment that required a “tremendous amount of courage.”
“If there’s one thing that our players hear more often than not from me is the tremendous amount of personal courage, sacrifice, and dedication that hs come from players before them. Players they’ve never met, never known and never will,” Smith told ThinkProgress after the speech. “So when I look at the stand of the young man last night, I tend not to see it in isolation of one issue. I see it as, it seems to me that there’s this wonderful continuous thread of players who are willing to stand up and represent everything that’s right about respect, honor, tradition, collective strength. And the strength of our union is inextricably tied to that.”
“I know that the union will accept him with open arms, as will our players,” NFLPA president Dominque Foxworth, who played seven seasons in the league, said on ESPN’s “Mike and Mike” show Monday morning.
A long list of current and former players tweeted or otherwise stated their support for Sam in the hours after he came out Sunday night.
Under Foxworth and Smith’s leadership, the NFLPA has taken an interest in LGBT issues both inside and outside football. The union helped broker the inclusion of a non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation in the league’s collective bargaining agreement, and it has partnered with LGBT groups and other allies to promote equality in sports and across the country. The NFL, for its part, has partnered with the You Can Play Project to help LGBT youth, and the league welcomed Sam with an inclusive statement Sunday night (it’s no secret around the league that commissioner Roger Goodell, who has a gay brother, wants the NFL to lead the way on LGBT issues in sports).
For all the progress it has made, the NFL has had bouts with homophobia from players, team executives, and coaching staffs. Players like Jonathan Vilma and Mike Wallace, among others, have expressed unwillingness or discomfort about playing with gay players, and former NFL punter Chris Kluwe, an outspoken LGBT equality advocate, alleged that his special teams coach in Minnesota regularly used gay slurs and chided Kluwe’s activism. An effort to have a gay player come out in 2013 fell apart at the last minute in part because people around the league feared the media scrutiny that would result, and before the 2013 NFL Draft, multiple teams reportedly asked players about their sexuality and whether they “like girls.”
The NFL responded to those questions by strengthening its non-discrimination policy, and it reportedly sent a reminder of that policy to all teams Sunday night. The non-discrimination policy applies to all current and prospective NFL players, including potential draft picks. Smith said Monday that the union would monitor whether Sam or any other player faced similar questions this year, especially after Sports Illustrated anonymously quoted eight current and former NFL insiders as saying that Sam’s coming out would hurt his draft stock (Smith called the anonymous quotes “gutless”).
“My hope is that all parties have learned from that and there would be no repeat of it. I do believe the league could have and should have done more in reaction to that because again, I think it’s important that team officials be held to the same standard as players,” Smith said. “And typically if the league believes the player has engaged in misconduct, there’s some sort of consequences for that. When our players see that team management don’t face the same consequence, you’re sending the wrong message that somehow there’s a group of people in the NFL family who are exempt from the same standards. I don’t think that makes us a stronger league. I know it doesn’t make us a smarter league. I know it would be a much better world for our fans if fans understood and believed that levels of conduct were being expected of not only players but of management. And I think that’s what both Roger and I should strive for.”