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Knudson: It’s about what’s best for the team

For the record, Manti Te’o says empathically that he’s not gay. With no evidence to the contrary, there is no reason to believe otherwise.

But the Te’o episode with a pretend internet girlfriend who turned out to be a guy brought up that possibility and, more importantly, re-opened the debate about openly homosexual players and their acceptance in the NFL.

A decade ago, there was the matter of Esera Tuaolo, former NFL defensive lineman who made a splash when he came out as openly gay after his retirement and wrote a book on the subject. He also went on to a career as a professional singer. Tuaolo voiced complaints about having to stay in the closet while he was in the NFL. His grievances were noted by the ever politically correct NFL, but largely fell on deaf ears otherwise, probably because he was viewed by most people as having had a successful career in professional sports and music, and now as an author. He didn’t seem to need much sympathy.

The issue had been largely dormant in terms of the NFL until the Te’o episode. At the Super Bowl, San Francisco 49ers defensive back Chris Culliver stuck his cleat in his mouth while being interviewed on the subject, making it clear that he would be uncomfortable with gay teammate. His views – although very poorly stated – are probably shared by a large majority of his NFL brethren. And the debate was sparked.

It’s very important when wading into this debate that we differentiate between actual discrimination and hurt feelings. Tuaolo was not discriminated against in any way. I’ve yet to hear anyone associated with pro sports, and that includes the comments from Culliver, that are advocating any sort of discrimination of anyone based on their sexual orientation.

Maybe I missed something, but I’ve yet to hear about any athlete being denied any opportunity based on his or her sexual orientation. Discrimination is wrong, and most of us believe gay people should have every right afforded every straight person.

No one has said that gays should not be allowed to play in the NFL. What has been said is that having a gay teammate would make some players uncomfortable. That’s about their feelings. Feelings aren’t right or wrong; they’re just feelings. It’s telling someone their feelings are wrong that’s the real wrong.

So what’s being debated here is not actual discrimination, but rather hurt feelings. Just because Tuaolo felt uncomfortable about his homosexuality inside a machismo-filled, heterosexual-dominated locker room does not mean he was denied any opportunities. In fact, he endured emotionally and has profited handsomely by taking full advantage of his talents and opportunities.

It’s also important to consider that the heterosexual players involved have feelings, too, and they’re no more or less valid than the feelings of those in the gay community. It’s amazing how many people feel free to criticize and tell athletes how they are supposed to feel, as if that’s anyone else’s right.

Along those lines, the PC police in the media have been quick to blast the NFL as the “last bastion of Neanderthal thinking left in the world” (I guess they’ve never been to the deep south, but that’s another story.) Those who have never lived in a locker room, with its badly needed and justifiable “foxhole mentality,” have been quick to criticize athletes for not being tolerant of the idea of having a gay teammate.

“Every other work place environment has long ago accepted the idea of having openly gay co-workers. What’s wrong with pro athletes?” The answer is nothing. There’s nothing wrong with pro athletes that isn’t wrong with the attractive woman in the office who is uncomfortable with being gawked at.

Critics of pro athletes are conveniently forgetting about some pretty substantial differences in workplace environments. Trying to compare the local “more tolerant” accounting office with a pro sports locker room is absurd. Those who work 9-5 with a gay co-worker aren’t essentially living together. They aren’t spending 24/7 living under a microscope, with every move they make being scrutinized. They aren’t traveling across North America and going into intense competition in hostile environments and then being expected to perform flawlessly as a unit. And they aren’t showering together afterwards. Important distinctions.

In a normal work environment, people are individuals with jobs. In pro sports, it’s all about as George Karl puts it, “teamness.” Individualism and personal agendas might be okay in a normal workplace, but it’s not okay in team sports. Teamness is what fans demand from the teams they pay to watch. Any individual with an agenda that’s even slightly different from that of the team hurts that cause.

Just as absurd as comparing workplace environments is the ridiculous claim by some in the gay community that there wouldn’t be any sort of physical attraction for a gay athlete toward any of his straight teammates – which would cause those very uncomfortable situations. He’s gay; he’s not dead. He can’t just flip a switch and turn off his feelings when he walks into the locker room.

Of course he’s going to have feelings of attraction toward a teammate or two. It’s human nature. These are some of the most physically fit and desirable human beings on the planet. The gay athlete isn’t going to notice that? And obviously, the straight teammates are going to feel the same sort of vibe that the attractive girl on the co-ed softball team gets from a few of the men on her team. Attractive people know when they’re being “checked out” and it leads to those very awkward moments. It’s human nature for people to be attracted to other people and it’s not going to stop happening because the workplace environment is a locker room rather than a typical office setting.

We should salute Esera Tuaolo and other gay athletes who are able to keep their sexual orientation private during their playing days. It’s got to be very difficult to do, and yet it’s what’s best for the team.

That’s what this all should come down to. What’s best for the team.

Internal strife and locker room drama is bad for ANY team. Personal agendas are not welcome. Nothing that infringes on the cohesiveness of the locker room can be tolerated. If a player who is not an irreplaceable superstar becomes any sort of distraction, he’s going to get released. We’ve seen countless examples of that.

That’s why it remains the best option for any homosexual athlete in a team sport to keep his orientation private. He’s doing what’s best for himself by doing what’s best for the team.

There will be plenty of time for pronouncements and getting that nice book deal after the playing days are over. We’ve seen examples of that, too.


Mark Knudson is a former Major League Baseball player, having pitched for the Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers and Colorado Rockies during his eight-year career (1985-93). The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of Mile High Sports and its subsidiaries, its sponsors or its affiliates.

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