opinion

Game Loser

The NFL Has an Opportunity to Tackle Its Own Homophobia. It Mustn’t Blow It.

‘Do you like men?’ This question, reportedly posed to Louisiana State University running back Derrius Guice during the NFL’s draft combine, shows the NFL must tackle homophobia.

opinion

Zach Bolinger/Getty

“Do you like men?”

A question along those lines was reportedly posed to Louisiana State University running back Derrius Guice during the NFL’s draft combine, according to a radio interview with Guice himself and NBC Sport’s Pro Football Talk website, which confirmed Guice’s report with a separate source.

During the combine—a sort of competitive gauntlet for prospective players—Guice told SiriusXM NFL radio, “I go in one room and a team will ask me do I like men, just to see my reaction.” (Guice also said that he was asked if his mother engages in sex work.)

It’s just the latest example of homophobia in professional football—but it’s also an opportunity for the NFL to prove it wants to address this long-running problem.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told the Washington Post that they were “looking into the matter” and that the homophobic question was “completely inappropriate and wholly contrary to league workplace policies.”

There’s no doubt the NFL wants to find out which team asked the question, now that the damaging story has leaked.

But all eyes in LGBT athletics will be carefully watching what happens after the team is identified. A slap on the wrist would essentially allow the culture of the combine to continue. More serious measures, like banning whichever team asked the question from the combine—as the NFL Players Association has recommended, per the Post’s reporting—would send a stronger message.

“Any time something bad happens in the LGBTQ sports space, it’s an opportunity to show leadership and do what it is right,” Hudson Taylor, executive director of the LGBT athletics organization Athlete Ally, told me. “This is one of those times for the NFL.”

It’s especially crucial that the NFL act decisively now because, as Pro Football Talk noted, a variant of this same question has been posed at least twice before, to New York Giants defensive back Eli Apple in 2016 and to free agent and tight end Nick Kara in 2013–and those are just the instances that have been reported.

PFT took a pessimistic outlook, speculating that “the NFL will continue to issue the perfunctory press release objection to questions like this but will ultimately fail to solve the problem, once and for all.”

But a third time for this question is decidedly not charming—and as support for LGBT rights continues to grow, homophobic questions at the NFL combine will be increasingly bad optics for a sports league that’s already facing multiple ongoing controversies and problems, ranging from national anthem protests to head trauma to domestic violence to declining ratings.

The media environment is different now, too, with less and less acceptance of casual homophobia in professional sports leagues. If ever there were a time for the NFL to earn some goodwill by taking a principled stand on a glaring example of homophobia, it’s now.

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“I think the NFLPA had a great suggestion, and the team in question should be barred from participating in the combine,” Taylor told me when I asked what it would take to discourage teams from asking players this question at the combine.

Anything less than that, he added, and “there continues to be a culture that is not in keeping with the policies.” Indeed, there’s a broader tension here between the NFL as a culture of players and teams—and the NFL as a workplace that explicitly includes nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation.

The NFL has tried to stop this question from being asked before the same way a business would try to adjust behavior, but the NFL can’t just change behavior with a memo.

As CBS DC reported in 2014, shortly before openly gay defensive end Michael Sam made history by being drafted by the Rams, a handout was given to teams in April 2013 explicitly “cited ‘do you like women or men?’ as a specific example of a question that is forbidden from being asked during the interview process.’”

The fact that a version of that same query would be asked nearly five years after that April 2013 handout was first circulated is proof that policies written down on paper don’t mean anything unless there are consequences for breaching them. And if there’s an event like the combine where rules might be seen more as loose guidelines in a rigorous vetting process, the incident also raises questions about the nature of the combine itself—and how a nondiscrimination policy can be applied at an event where coaches try to get under prospective players’ skins.

“In instances like this,” Taylor noted, “It begs the question: Are your policies and practices aligned with one another?”

The Human Rights Campaign recommended that the NFL “take serious actions that address these unacceptable incidents and the perpetuation of an unwelcoming anti-LGBTQ environment,” even calling on the league to support national legislation that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Although there’s justifiable skepticism that the NFL will take action decisive enough to stamp the question out of the combine given its past performance, there’s still hope that a strong enough punishment can be devised to fit the crime.

Outsports writer Cyd Ziegler’s compelling proposal is that the offending coach should receive a weeklong suspension without pay and his team “should lose a fourth-round draft pick.”

Those punishments combined would certainly be more impactful than simply barring the team from the combine—but whatever precise shape the punitive measures take, it’s clear now that something dramatic has to happen to stamp out the stubbornly persistent homophobic question.

Taylor is hopeful that one day “we can look back and say, wow, the steps that were taken following the 2018 combine prevented things like this from happening ever again.”

If history repeats itself, Derrius Guice will join Eli Apple and Nick Kara as footnotes in the next article about a player who gets asked this offensive question at the combine a few years from now. But the NFL has a chance to make this moment a turning point in the sports history of tomorrow—and they shouldn’t fumble the chance.