The NFL has a big opportunity on their hands with Michael Sam, potentially the first out gay player in the NFL, who for now is the first out major NFL prospect. Or, possibly, the NFL instead has a huge mess. The likelihood that Sam's decision to announce his orientation was in part influenced by NFL teams violating the collective bargaining agreement, in our amateur estimation, seems high.
Last year, the NFL investigated teams for asking questions about prospects' sexuality during the lead-up to the Draft in April. During the NFL Combine, the annual gathering of rookies to evaluate their NFL potential, general managers allegedly asked tight end Nick Kasa whether or not he "likes girls," or has a girlfriend. Linebacker Manti Te'o's sexuality was the "elephant in the room," as Mike Florio put it, after the social media hoax that was his love life was revealed. These are not standard questions in any job interview, even in the crazy, dangerous world of professional football. "Do you like girls," was very clearly NFL coach code for "are you gay," or will you be a "distraction" to my team.
It's worth noting here that the NFL has a rule in its collective bargaining agreement outlawing discrimination against sexual orientation. Under Article 49, Section 1, it reads:
“No Discrimination: There will be no discrimination in any form against any player by the Management Council, any Club or by the NFLPA because of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or activity or lack of activity on behalf of the NFLPA.”
Now compare the Te'o and Kasa experience to what Michael Sam went through with NFL scouts during the Senior Bowl this year. Per Out Sports' Cyd Ziegler:
"At the Senior Bowl, it was the first question I got from the scouts almost every time," Barkett said. He didn't feel there was an agenda behind the question other than trying to determine if the word on the Internet was true. "They would ask about spending time with him, were there girls around? Who is his girlfriend? They didn't ask that about another client, Tom Hornsey. They only asked it about Michael."
Those two stories seem identical, but the difference here is that NFL personnel did sniff out a gay player with Sam, which they did not do with Kasa or Te'o. “I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” Sam told The New York Times. “I just want to own my truth.”
In April 2013, the NFL distributed this fact sheet on sexual discrimination in the workplace, outlining what would and would not be tolerated going forward. The NFL explicitly outlawed the type of questions Sam faced at the Senior Bowl:
Sam, or Sam's representatives, faced questions from NFL personnel that directly violate NFL labor rules. Discrimination from executives now that the truth is out there is already palpable. For every supportive statement from owners like the New York Giants' John Mara and Steve Tisch, there are anonymous executives telling Sports Illustrated that Sam's orientation will negatively affect his draft stock because football is still a "man's man" game. On CBS's draft projection board, Sam fell seventy spots literally over night. In the NFL, where the difference between being drafted in the first, second, or third round is millions of dollars, you can already quantify the discrimination Sam's announcement has made on his future.
Whether any teams will face league discipline for their conduct at the Senior Bowl remains to be seen. The NFL supported Sam on Sunday night. For teams to face repercussions, Sam would need to identify who asked those questions, which would potentially have even further negatively affect his chance to play in the NFL. Sam faces enough obstacles on the road to the 2014 NFL Draft in May already.
One thing remains crystal clear, though: teams interviewing Sam at the NFL Combine better walk on egg shells, or face the wrath of the league. The magnifying glass will not be on Michael Sam's ability to play football — his credentials are already established — but instead on making sure he's given a fair shot.
No teams were punished last year for asking about Kasa or Te'o's sexual orientation because Kasa and Te'o declined to identify which teams asked the controversial questions. Whether or not those teams broke the rules was never up for debate — that much was clear — but the prospects chose to keep the truth to themselves, likely out of fear for retribution.
We can see why.