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Opinion: Pro sports should ban sexual orientation questions

Doug Pensinger / Getty Images

Colorado tight end Nick Kasa was asked about his romantic interests during interviews at the recent NFL Scouting Combine.

University of Colorado tight end Nick Kasa is trying to get drafted so he can play for an NFL team. But does he “like girls?" It is surely nobody’s business but his own.

That is why he deserves a lot of credit for wondering earlier this week why representatives of NFL teams asked about his romantic interests during interviews at the recent NFL Scouting Combine.

The Combine is an annual jamboree for college athletes trying to make it into the NFL. After teams gather information on a player from game tapes, medical records and background checks, it's a one-shot opportunity for wanna-be draftees to show what they're made of, with a battery of physical, psychological, and personal tests. How they fare at the Combine often determines whether and how early they get selected in the draft -- and whether they get the contracts and signing bonuses that can reach into the tens of millions of dollars.

While players' romantic reputations have been widely discussed in years past -- including the basketball stars Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant and football stars such as Tim Tebow -- there hasn't been such public attention paid to their sexual orientations.

The story about Kasa being asked about his preference for pink or blue was quickly followed by a lot of Internet buzz, mostly heated speculation about whether Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te'o might be gay. Te'o has been the focal point of headlines for many weeks about his involvement in a hoax that included a fake girlfriend. It is such a bizarre story that no amount of speculation or innuendo about his private life has been kept off-limits. That goes for the media, the web and NFL teams.

Two execs confirm teams want to know about Te'o's sexuality

It may be hard to believe, but there is currently no federal law that protects people from being questioned about their sexual orientation when seeking a job. Any protections that do exist can be found in state laws, collective bargaining agreements and individual company policies. In Indiana, where the Combine takes place, sexual orientation is not a protected status for private employers. Only 16 states prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. While the growing public acceptance of same-sex marriage indicates that further protections are likely to be established, there may yet be a wrangle over what to do if information obtained in states where questions about gender preference are legal is later used to discriminate against a potential employee.

The NFL is launching an investigation to determine whether Teo, Kasa, or any other players were asked a question about their sexual orientation. Representatives of several teams have gone on record to say that they did not and never would ask such a question.

But if a team official did ask an athlete ‘who do you love?’, let's hope that it wasn't out of a misplaced fear that drafting a player who likes girls, boys or both could become a distraction to the team – either in the locker room, in the press, or in the public sphere. After dealing with criminal acts such rape, spousal abuse, drug addiction and repeat drunk driving in various professional sports leagues over the years, having a gay athlete on a squad should be the least of any manager or coach’s worries.

As the NFL seems intent on doing, all professional sports should make it clear: No probing of any athletes' sexual orientation will be allowed.  Any use of such information, however acquired, should result in a severe penalty for the team that does it. Period.

But even if things are resolved in this instance, there are still larger questions to tackle. In particular, would enough of our society truly support a sports star who is openly gay? Would it make a difference if the player was a projected first-round pick like Te'o or a likely late-round pick like Kasa? Would teams find it easier to manage issues that arise around an athlete who is openly gay than one who isn't?

Since homosexuality is still considered relevant to employment eligibility in some states where teams play, these questions point to the need for the NFL and all sports organizations to back change in federal law.

Sports has – admittedly, often grudgingly -- led the way for society regarding race, gender, and disability. However, compared to companies such as Google and Citibank now urging changes through the U.S. Supreme Court, sports leagues and teams have lagged when it comes to helping change outdated perceptions about sexual orientation.

But sports can and should do what is right by making it clear that sexual preference has no role to play in who gets to play.


Video: Can NFL teams hold sexual orientation against players?

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Arthur L. Caplan, Ph.D., is the head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center. Arthur R. Miller, CBE, is a leading scholar in the field of American civil procedure and a University Professor at New York University and Chairman of The NYU Sports & Society Program. Lee H. Igel, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Tisch Center at NYU.