The “Elephant In The Room”: How The Perceived Sexuality of Manti Te’o Matters In Today’s NFL


Mandatory Credit: USA TODAY Sports 2/23/2013

“matter (n.) – a subject under consideration” Merriam-Webster Dictionary

“Does it matter?” has become an overused phrase in the sports debate world, alongside  “in the conversation” and “anything can happen.” The question is so open ended, and leaves more questions than it provides answers for. If something “matters” to one person, it might not matter to another. The impact any given situation can have on an individual varies greatly, so the question provides little clarity into a situation. To say something should, or should not, matter is to say you don’t believe it matters. But to take the time to think and write about it means it must matter in some way, because you’re taking it under consideration. Basically, the question answers itself. If it’s worth talking about, it matters.

Mike Florio from Pro Football Talk stirred the pot earlier this week, posting this article about Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame linebacker who has been the center of jokes, opinions, and controversy since Deadspin revealed his girlfriend was not real, and most of his inspirational story was a hoax. Florio stated multiple times that Te’o’s sexuality should not “matter”, but that it likely would. He stated that Te’o’s sexuality is the “elephant in the room” and that many NFL teams would likely shy away from selecting the linebacker if he was in fact a homosexual.

In other words, it does matter. It matters quite a bit.

Nick Kasa of Colorado. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Colorado tight end Nick Kasa told a Denver radio station that he was asked if he “liked girls at all” by NFL executives interviewing him at the combine. Note the key word “interviewing”. The topic of a player’s sexuality matters so much, it drives NFL front offices to bend (and break) the very laws of this country to find out more about their potential future employees. Imagine if you were to walk into a job interview and find yourself faced with a question about your sexuality or sexual history. How would you feel? It obviously made Kasa uncomfortable, and I’m sure it was nothing compared to the questions Manti Te’o faced.

We have heard stories in the past of Combine interviews including very personal questions, and the logic to defend NFL teams is the amount of money they invest in these players. This is an understandable defense to asking pressing questions about a bad grade, a rules violation and suspension, or even an arrest. If you’re thinking about selecting Alec Ogletree, you need to ask him about his DUI, and make sure he shoots straight about it. But there needs to be a line drawn, and that line stops well before asking players about their sexual history.

Let’s assume for a paragraph that Manti Te’o is a homosexual or bisexual man. Let’s assume his fake girlfriend was a hoax to hide his sexuality from his family, his religion, and his school. Let’s assume he was putting up a front so that his teammates and coaches didn’t catch on. In a league with no openly homosexual athletes, in an era where non of the major male sports feature homosexual athletes, and in a day and age where players like Chris Culliver openly state they’d not welcome a gay player into the locker room, why would Te’o feel comfortable admitting his sexuality? He has a future in the NFL, and has 8-15 years worth of NFL paychecks riding on the line. This topic MATTERS, and Te’o knows it. If he’s a homosexual, he knows he cannot be open about it. He’d find himself run out of the league in no time flat. Every mistake would be magnified, every interaction with teammates would be scrutinized, and his fake girlfriend hoax would be perceived as a massive operation to cover up his sexuality, and deemed as a black mark on his previously golden history. The culture of the NFL, and probably even the United States, would not welcome a confirmed homosexual player, and Te’o is bright enough to know that.

Jay Cutler’s masculinity was called into question when he didn’t play through a torn MCL. How much worse would the league react to a homosexual player? Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve seen in other sports that players are simply not willing to be open about their sexuality while actively participating. Robbie Rodgers, former MLS and United States National Team soccer player, has recently stepped away from the game and revealed he is gay. John Amaechi waited until his NBA career was over before he revealed he was a homosexual, admitting he could only confide in select people about his circumstances. And neither of those sports have the same level of masculinity overload that the NFL does. NFL players have their toughness questioned for not playing through injuries, they have their commitment questioned every time they fail to take the field. Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times often comments on his radio show that “there are no sacred cows” in NFL locker rooms. A homosexual player would not be universally welcomed in the same way players with criminal pasts, or players from differing religious faiths are currently welcomed. And that simply has to change.

But there’s no magic bullet to change the culture. The NFL will always be a gladiator sport, suited for only the toughest men to play until they have spent every ounce of energy they have left. And the perception is that a homosexual male would not fit in to the culture. A quick search of twitter, or a quick glance at the comments section of any article about the NFL will reveal that many fans toss around the word “gay” or otherwise feminize players they feel are weak or insufficient. This is indicative of a culture that still struggles to accept homosexuality, regardless of personal opinion on the origin or moral consequences of being a homosexual. Just like some people are Hispanic, and some people are Catholic, and some people choose to live a life with certain vices and addictions, some people are homosexual. And there are likely some of those people in the NFL right now.

Does it matter? Yes, it matters. It matters because it’s a problem; it’s something that alienates and divides. So Manti Te’o’s sexuality is likely going to remain in question until he hangs up his cleats after his NFL career is over. And in the end, we might find out that the elephant in the room as it relates to Te’o’s sexuality was just a figment of our imagination. But that the real elephant in the room is the reality that the NFL has a glaring issue with homophobia, and that issue needs to be addressed through the maturity of players, coaches, and executives. It’s time that players like Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo aren’t the only ones standing up for equality. Because regardless of your religious, spiritual, or moral beliefs on the issue, you should see no reason for stopping a player who is a homosexual from competing in the National Football League. In the same way that a Mormon, or an African-American, or a vegetarian, or any other variety of human being should be able to compete: as a highly-skilled athlete who wants to go toe-to-toe against the best players in his sport.

So Manti Te’o’s sexual preference does matter, but only because our culture dictates that it matters. I would hope that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would welcome a homosexual player into the locker room as a part of the Buccaneer family. But I realize that we’re likely not at that point yet as a society. But there will come a day when we’ll look back at the reaction of the media to the possibility of Te’o being a homosexuality, and we’ll scoff at our ignorance. Just like previous generations did when it came to African-Americans’ playing baseball, or women having the right to vote. And while everyone has a differing opinion on the morality of “non-traditional” sexualities, and we all have differing opinions on Manti Te’o, we should all strive to be understanding of the circumstances of others. Because someone’s right to believe that homosexuality is wrong is the same right that should allow a homosexual to play the game he loves to play. It’s the freedom we have as Americans, and to take that for granted is borderline criminal.