If you're even vaguely familiar with football or the Internet, you've probably heard of Manti Te'o. Once a celebrated linebacker at Notre Dame, Te'o has quickly become the most maligned college football player in recent memory. But as his saga continues to wind its way through the press, it's shedding light on the structural inequalities that are still pervasive in one of our most popular cultural institutions.
Te'o came to national prominence during the 2012 college football season when he led his team through an undefeated regular season. His story had all the makings of a future feature movie: he grew up in a devoutly religious Samoan Mormon family in Hawaii, chose to play for the nationally known but perennially struggling Notre Dame, and came out as a man in love. Early in the season, Te'o revealed that his beloved girlfriend, a Stanford grad named Lennay Kekua, had died of leukemia on the same day as Te'o's grandmother. The tragic story soon took off in the media, and became one of the heart wrenching undercurrents of Notre Dame's undefeated season.
But then, Notre Dame lost the national championship--badly--to the University of Alabama. And within weeks, the popular sports blog Deadspin revealed that Kekua hadn't died--because she never existed. What unfolded was one of the most bizarre stories in sports history. Te'o admitted to being the victim of a Twitter-based hoax perpetrated by a man named Ronniah Tuiasosopo, who had an uncanny ability to imitate a woman's voice." Though the Deadspin story portrayed Te'o as a willing participant, the linebacker and his family maintained his innocence. Tuiasosopo went on Dr. Phil and admitted that was gay; Te'o has since strongly declared his heterosexuality.
But that hasn't stopped NFL teams from asking Te'o directly about his sexual orientation at the NFL combine, the testing ground for the year's most talented players.
During the three-day training, held in Indianapolis each February, NFL teams scrutinize each player's physical readiness and social maturity. Players, often dressed in spandex training gear, are evaluated in virtually every category imaginable: how fast they can run, how far they can throw, and how well they can handle the media. Those who perform well are rewarded with higher draft slots and more lucrative contracts. Those who don't are forced to play an agonizing waiting game on draft day.
It's a given that Te'o would face intense scrutiny at the combine, and even the most forgiving observers have noted that his athletic performance was mediocre at best. But yesterday Martin Rogers at Yahoo Sports! revealed that a number of NFL teams have asked him directly about his sexuality.
Questioning a prospective player's sexuality isn't entirely illegal. While the league doesn't have a direct policy on what teams can and cannot ask potential employees, those teams do have to comply with employment laws in their state.
In total, 13 of the league's 32 teams can legally ask a player about his sexual orientation because they play in states where there are no laws protecting LGBT people from employment bias. A bill banning workplace bias based on sexual orientation has languished in Congress for years.
But the NFL does have safeguards against this kind of scrutiny, it just appears that teams aren't following them. Buried deep within the NFL's most recent collective bargaining agreement is a non-discrimination clause that reads: "There will be no discrimination in any form against any player by the NFL, the Management Council, any Club or by the [National Football League Player's Association] because of the race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or activity or lack of activity on behalf of the NFLPA."
To date, no player has ever sued the league for discrimination based on sexual orientation. And the reason for that is the perception of hypermasculinity that is central to the league's appeal.
"The image of male athletes in general, but football players specifically, is that of being straight, tough, invulnerable, impenetrable," says Byron Hurt, a filmmaker and director of the documentary "Beyond Beats and Rhymes," which looks at homophobia in hip-hop. "Athletes are hyper concerned with their masculine identity and how other men percieve their masculinity. Even though a player may not have negative attitudes toward a gay teammate, they have trouble aligning themselves with [them] because they don't want to be percieved as gay themselves. No straight man who's insecure about his masculinity wants to take that kind of risk."
It's a point worth noting given how prominently LGBT issues have become in the league in recent years. In the lead up to this year's Super Bowl, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brandon Ayanbadejo continued his outspoken support of LGBT equality. Meanwhile, the opposing San Francisco 49ers ran into a series of public relations gaffes when its players went on the record refusing to play with a theoretical openly gay teammate, and then dismissing the team's previous efforts to reach out to its LGBT fans.
So how can the league begin to meaningfully address homophobia?
"It sounds like the NFL has to create an indepth training program around issues of sexual prejudice and homophobia to fulfill the requirements of the [collective bargaining agreement]," said Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports management at Drexel University. Otherwise, the league risks "revealing the lie that it's your performance that gets you selected."
For Hurt, the solution involves both the individuals who play in the league and the institution of the NFL itself.
"I think more men who are secure in their manhood and their masculinity who do support LGBT issues need to speak out and stand up," he told me over the phone. "It really comes from the top down, from the leadership. If the leadership takes a really strong stance against homophobia in the lockerroom by punishing players for making homophobic comments, players will get the message."
"In addition to that kind of response, there has to be an ongoing, sustained training program within the NFL that deals with homophobia and gender violence," Hurt said. "The same people who have really homophobic ideas about sexuality are more like to have really misogynistic ideas about girls and women."