By Collin Brennan
For a weekend in Indianapolis, the NFL Scouting Combine provides the top college football players in the country an opportunity to be measured in every way imaginable- from athletic ability, mental aptitude, football IQ, to their entire make-up and character as a person- meanwhile, doing so in revealing and sometimes unflattering underwear. Throw in the intensive 24/7 media coverage from NFL Network and ESPN and you would think these athletes were enlisting to become the next Captain America.
One of the more unsettling issues with the scouting combine is the questions teams are asking individual prospects in their one-on-one time. In theory, interviews are a necessary step for any job processing or prospects, but the NFL has proven yet again it is still obsessed with a macho-man, homophobic bigotry culture.
“I’ve been asked a lot of weird questions. I don’t know if I could say on TV,” Apple said. “The Falcons coach, one of the coaches, was like, ‘So do you like men?’ It was like the first thing he asked me. It was weird. I was just like, ‘no.’ He was like, ‘if you’re going to come to Atlanta, sometimes that’s how it is around here, you’re going to have to get used to it.’ I guess he was joking but they just ask most of these questions to see how you’re going to react.”
Apple’s awkward and disturbing encounter with the Falcons is yet another example of the NFL’s unwillingness to let go of the idea of hegemonic masculinity. Communication scholar Nick Trujillo defined hegemonic masculinity as the “culturally idealized form of masculine character” which emphasizes “toughness and competitiveness” as well as the “subordination of women.” Trujillo states masculinity is hegemonic when heterosexuality is defined as “good”, “normal”, and “natural.” In short, the idea of hegemonic masculinity is about being a straight, highly sexualized, strong male that subordinates females and homosexuals. An idea that is often too prevalent in the NFL.
The Apple incident is by no means an isolated incident for the league and demonstrates how the culture in the NFL reinforces these offensive hegemonic masculine qualities on a large scale.
Despite the NFL explicitly telling teams not to ask about sexual orientation, there are countless examples of teams expressing homophobia through their line of questioning to college prospects.
In 2013, Mike Florio of NBC Sports said NFL teams, coaches and executives wanted to know if that year’s Heisman trophy runner up and Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o was gay. In an interview with the Dan Patrick Show, Florio laid out the concerns of NFL teams focusing on Te’o’s sexual orientation:
“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.”
In that same year, University of Colorado tight end and college prospect Nick Kasa said we has asked by a scout if he liked women.
“[Teams] ask you like, ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ Are you married?’ Do you like girls?’” Kasa told CJ and Kreckman of ESPN Radio Denver. “Those kinds of things, and you know it was just kind of weird. But they would ask you with a straight face, and it’s a pretty weird experience altogether.”
In any other professional setting, these type of questions would be seen as completely inappropriate and unprofessional. In fact, any interview questions regarding sexual orientation are illegal in most states and companies that are caught asking these questions can get in serious legal trouble.
But in the NFL the question of being gay remains a big issue, just ask Michael Sam.
After being named the SEC’s defensive player of the year and having an illustrious career at the University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam was initially projected as a mid-round selection in the upcoming 2014 NFL draft.
Before the draft, in an exclusive interview with The New York Times, Sam came out as gay making him the first future NFL athlete to come out and sending shockwaves across the league. From the start, Sam’s sexual orientation was seen more as a hindrance for NFL teams rather than an opportunity to progress past the macho-man locker room culture.
While the vast majority of coaches and general managers publicly supported Sam’s decision and said it would not effect their evaluation of him, internally many were skeptical about his sexuality in an NFL locker room.
In an interview with SI, eight anonymous NFL executives and coaches believed Sam’s decision to come out prior to the draft would significantly hurt his draft status.
“I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,” said an NFL player personnel assistant. “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”
To say Sam never got a fair assessment would be an understatement. Sam was drafted in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams, as the 249th pick of the 256 players selected in the 2014 draft. While the pick was celebrated by many, it was clear his production in college did not warrant a disappointing seventh round selection.
Two years later Sam is out of the league and never played a single down in the NFL. In reality, Sam’s less than ideal measurables and average athleticism was simply not good enough for NFL teams to worry themselves of the headache of trying to have him on their team. To NFL teams, he was labeled as a potential “distraction” and not worth their time. The Michael Sam story ended up being one about failure.
And that is the issue with the NFL. Sexual orientation is still seen as a “distraction” rather than a personal right that should have no bearing or effect on the judgment of how someone can do their job. This plays right into Truijillo’s concept of heterosexuality as being seen as “normal” and “natural,” while homosexuality should be viewed as unnatural and something that should be suppressed. Michael Sam’s story showed how the NFL is stuck in the past- allowing players to worship, convey, and reinforce the ideals of hegemonic masculinity through heterosexuality and casting away the idea of homosexuality. For the league it was easier to forget Michael Sam than to embrace him as a trailblazer.
Currently in the NFL there is no room for understanding, no room for progression. In truth it is a cultural issue that will not be fixed anytime soon.
This Eli Apple incident is more proof that nothing has changed since Michael Sam. There is still a mindset in the league that will only continue to isolate and intimidate football players from even considering coming out as gay. There is still a locker room culture that promotes the ideal image of hegemonic masculinity that won’t be stopped with a slap on the wrist or a small fine. If the NFL is serious about changing the culture to a more welcoming one they need to show it with their handling of the Atlanta Falcons’ assistant coach. In truth, he needs to be fired if anything positive is to come out of this.
Erick Fernandez of The Huffington Post Sports says the penalty must make a statement in order to really force change:
“Whether the Falcons release the coach in question or suspend the person for a large part of the season, the penalty must be severe enough to discourage any other coach from ever again invading a prospective player’s privacy this way. As this latest instance demonstrates, professional football can still be an unwelcoming place for gay athletes. The NFL and the Falcons must show they’re trying to change that culture — and soon.”
What this latest blunder shows is that NFL still lives in a culture that is not ready to be leaders on breaking the “gay barrier.”
Unfortunately, Michael Sam was not good enough on the field to break through the “gay barrier” because his production did not level out his potential to be a “distraction.” Sam’s story left NFL coaches to still feel it is okay to see gay players as a potential distraction and subsequently still ask prospects about their orientation at the combine.
In order for this cultural barrier to be broken it may take a Jackie Robinson like athlete to even begin to move the bar forward. And in 2016, that is just sad.