I was listening to NPR’s Morning Edition earlier, and they were talking about Michael Sam. Sam, if you haven’t heard, is a defensive end for the University of Missouri’s football team, and yesterday he came out publicly as gay. He’s widely expected to be drafted by the National Football League this spring, and likely to become the first openly gay male player in any of the country’s big three professional sports leagues as a result.
In discussing Sam’s prospects, John Branch of the New York Times told co-host Renee Montagne that his announcement, coming as it did before Sam has secured an NFL contract, was made “potentially at the risk of his professional career.”
“You kind of wonder today,” Montagne replied, “with anti-discrimination laws and whatnot, if he would be hurt.”
There are a couple of problems with what Montagne said. First, of course, there’s the fact that proving discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in this context would be incredibly difficult. If no team chooses to offer him a slot, who does he sue? All of them? And with what evidence?
But even if we set that aside, there’s a bigger problem: The United States has no federal law protecting gay people from discrimination in employment, and more than half of the NFL’s teams — eighteen out of thirty-two — play in places where there are no state laws banning such discrimination either.
Only twenty-one American states ban anti-gay workplace discrimination, and only ten of those — California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Washington, and Wisconsin — have professional football teams. If Sam plays anywhere else, he won’t be protected under state law from discrimination on the basis of his sexual orientation.
Sam came out to his teammates and coaches last year. When he did, he was protected against retaliatory discrimination by the University of Missouri’s non-discrimination policy. But while Missouri has two NFL teams, and a state law banning anti-gay discrimination in state employment, it has no private-sector anti-discrimination law. It’s completely legal for the Chiefs or the Rams to fire a player for coming out.
Or say Sam wanted to play in Texas, where he was born and grew up. The Houston Texans play just an hour’s drive from his hometown of Galveston, and the Dallas Cowboys aren’t too much farther. But anti-gay discrimination is completely legal according to Texas state law.
Now, some municipalities and counties do have laws barring such discrimination, and the NFL has corporate policies restricting it as well. But if Sam winds up getting drafted by any NFL team other than the 49ers, Bears, Bills, Broncos, Chargers, Giants, Jets, Packers, Patriots, Raiders, Ravens, Seahawks, Vikings, or that Washington team with the racist name, he’d be well advised to do some digging into local ordinances.
And in fact, Sam’s lack of legal protection may have played a part in his decision to come out when he did. By making the announcement before the draft, Sam has has made sure that he won’t be drafted by a team that’s not okay with an out gay man. In so doing, he may have traded a higher slot in the draft — and a considerable amount of money — for the job security and peace of mind that our nation’s laws don’t currently offer him.
As for the rest of us, we should get to work on banning anti-discrimination nationally, and we should stop acting like such laws already exist.