The National Football League, still reeling from a gays-in-the-locker-room controversy that overtook its last media frenzy during the Super Bowl, is now facing an emotional explosion of controversies at once at its annual rookie scouting combine: Manti Te'o, the hoax victim and would-be NFL linebacker who has denied throughout his fake-girlfriend scandal that he is gay, is reportedly raising eyebrows among general managers doing the hiring who "want to know" about his sexuality — all this as teams refuse to speak out about gay players and critics charge that GMs still actively recruit players with criminal pasts.
At the week-long combine for college-football standouts in Indianapolis, Te'o has been underperforming athletically and facing a sea of questions publicly, but privately NFL executives see his sexuality as "the elephant in the room," and it may or may not affect his draft status, according to the well-sourced Mike Florio of NBC Sports. "We have to step aside from the rest of reality and walk into the unique industry that is the NFL," Florio said on Dan Patrick's syndicated radio show Monday afternoon. "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 Florida to ask if general managers are asking Te'o the question directly, or if they're dancing around it, or if they're doing investigative work to see if he lied to Katie Couric. Florio continued (emphasis ours):
"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.
Florio was also quick to defend the NFL from questions of outright discrimination: "I'm not saying anyone would take Manti Te'o off the board if they suspected he's gay or know he's gay," he said. "That's just the thing that's out there that they want to know the answer to." Instantly, a media circus began, all stemming from a well-placed member of the media saying the NFL didn't want another media circus on its hands by hiring a former media circus who might happen to be gay. Hmm.
Reaction to Florio's comments have flooded social media and the sports commentary circuit on two fronts. Initial reports dismissed NFL executives as part of the league's ongoing problem with gay athletes: "The combine does serve one useful purpose, though, and that is to remind everyone that many NFL general managers are deeply stupid people," wrote Deadspin's Tom Ley. And SB Nation's Andrew Sharp added of the apparent elephant in the combine meeting rooms: "That might be too personal, if you ask me. (If a guy can HIT, I don't care who he wants to kiss.)" And of course openly gay athletes in major sports are difficult to come by given the very culture of the leagues the NFL now seems to be propagating: MLS soccer player Robbie Rogers came out earlier this month only to retire, and NBA legend Kobe Bryant made strides against anti-gay slurs on the court the week before that. But this all came after a January full of nothing less than hatred from the Super Bowl, where San Francisco 49er Chris Culliver said he wouldn't welcome a gay athlete in the locker room. After a media firestorm, Culliver apologized, but not before other 49er players said some things revealing the team's big gay problem. Which left the NFL in an uneasy position, one it chose to maintain its silence on, despite outspoken comments from Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo on gay marriage throughout the season an into the playoffs — comments that might, until the offseason hit, have seemed liked progress.
But the newest round of reaction to the NFL's apparent fear of controversy over Te'o and his sexuality is the league's blind eye to criminality: Went to jail? Fine by us. Might be gay? Let's maybe pass on this kid. The hypocrisy of it all was not lost on the Chicago Sun-Times' Rick Morrissey, who wrote a broadside in today's paper:
"For NFL teams, the apparent concern isn’t just how players would respond to a gay teammate but the swirl of attention that would follow him everywhere he went. Really? Teams say they don’t like sideshows, but they sure haven’t had a problem drafting or signing players with criminal and personal problems over the years. Apparently, being gay is worse than beating up a girlfriend."
The NFL, of course, reacted swiftly after troubled Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed himself at a league practice facility after allegedly killing his girlfriend in December. The NFL, of course, watched as 31 players were arrested during its last offseason alone. The NFL, of course, has watched over 631 instances of a player getting arrested, for "something more than speeding tickets" since 2000, according to data compiled by the San Diego Union-Tribune. Some of those instances resulted in suspensions, but not all, and usually the players were welcomed back with open arms. And NFL general managers seemed to have no problem with quarterback Cam Newton, who was cited in police reports of stealing laptops but went on to become the No. 1 draft pick in 2011 and the NFL's Rookie of the Year. Tight end Jerramy Stevens was drafted in the first round in 2002 despite arrests for assault, marijuana use, sexual assault, and a hit-and-run in college — and he has bounced around the league despite at least eight other pretty terrible run-ins with the law ever since. (He has been suspended for two games in his 10-year career.)
Meanwhile, at the combine, one of the other brightest spotlights shining on any prospect has been former Louisiana State University cornerback and Heisman finalist Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu. Despite his own social-media firestorm when he ran into off-field troubles with drugs and the law that forced him to cut his college career short, Mathieu is attempting a professional resurgence. There was some suspicion he would return to LSU next year, but instead he opted to go straight to the NFL. He was most recently busted for marijuana possession in October, after a rehab stint last summer, and so far, he's impressed the judges in the general managers' offices. (Mathieu was expected to be chosen in the first round before his off-field troubles, but now isn't expected to go until the second or third day, according to mock drafts.)
And while the teams haven't spoken out on the record about their reported big gay problem with Te'o and his various apparent controversies, still more critics have taken issue with the NFL media buying air cover by speaking for them. If you believe Think Progress's Travis Waldron, Mike Florio is as much at fault as NFL GM's are:
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.
In Florio's own column on the matter, which arrived later on Monday as the reactions continued to unfold, he didn't do himself any favors shying away from that criticism. Florio stressed that he didn't believe it was right for NFL GMs to ask questions about whether Te'o was gay, but that somehow it still matters in the sordid world of the NFL:
It shouldn’t matter. In the NFL universe, it just does. Right or wrong (i.e., wrong) for it to matter, it does.
And so at a time when everyone seems to be bracing for the moment when the league will welcome an openly gay player, teams are trying to figure out whether they would be drafting a closeted one.
This doesn’t mean that any teams would take Te’o off the board if he turned out to be gay. (Of course, some could choose to shy away from him without ever articulating the reason.) Given the realities of NFL locker rooms, however, teams simply want to know what they’d be getting.
Again, it shouldn’t matter. In the NFL universe, it just does.
So, to recap: Criminal convictions don't matter. A long history of drug use, which could result in suspensions for violating the league's rules against drugs, potentially taking a player off the field for weeks at a time, doesn't matter. You're gay? Something that wouldn't effect your play, and isn't against NFL league rules? Whoa, let's slow down for a second. That matters.