Missouri may lack law, but NFL says teams must follow its non-discrimination policy

02/14/2014 12:52 PM

02/15/2014 1:36 PM

When NFL teams interview Missouri defensive end Michael Sam at the Scouting Combine next week in Indianapolis, they will not be allowed to ask him about his sexual orientation.

While the state of Missouri lacks a non-discrimination law that applies to sexual orientation, the NFL says it strictly enforces internal rules regarding discrimination in the workplace.

U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill expressed concern early last week, after Sam revealed he was gay, that because Missouri is one of 29 states without a non-discrimination law, the Chiefs and St. Louis Rams “both could legally say they were not hiring Michael Sam because he is gay.”

Sam is considered a third-to-fifth round draft choice, and the Chiefs and Rams may not draft or sign him because they either rate other players higher on their draft boards or don’t have a need at his position.

But the sexual orientation of Sam — who could be the first openly gay player to perform in the NFL next season — should not be a factor, according to NFL policy.

Both the Chiefs and Rams declined comment on McCaskill’s remarks and how they interpret the absence of a non-discrimination policy.

But NFL commissioner Roger Goodell spoke for the league when asked last Wednesday about Sam’s decision to come out.

“Good for him,” Goodell said. “He’s proud of who he is and had the courage to say it. Now he wants to play football. We have a policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. We will have further training and make sure that everyone understands our commitment. We truly believe in diversity and this is an opportunity to demonstrate it.”

In fact, last April, the NFL sent a document to all 32 clubs stating its policy on sexual orientation through the league’s Excellence in Workplace Conduct program, and outlined the league’s objective “to make sure that everyone understands that harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation are contrary to our values.”

The workplace document, which was distributed to all players at the start of last season, also reads: “It is the policy of the National Football League to provide equal employment opportunities to all employees and applicants for employment without regard to race, color, sex, national origin, disability, sexual orientation or other status protected by applicable federal, state or local law.”

That begins with the interviews of all 335 players at the combine as well as those who participate in postseason all-star games, pro days and visits to the teams’ facilities.

“Coaches, general managers and others responsible for interviewing and hiring draft-eligible players and free agents must not seek information concerning or make personnel decisions based on a player’s sexual orientation,” the league directive states.

“This includes asking questions during an interview that suggest the player’s sexual orientation will be a factor in the decision to draft or sign him.”

As examples, players cannot be asked direct questions about whether they have a girlfriend or do they like women or men, to subtle questions such as “How well do you do with the ladies?”

All players are subject to the same standards in how they treat their teammates and examples of harassment can include, but are not limited to making unwelcome contact with an employee; making crude jokes or comments; and distributing pornography or suggestive literature and language.

“Any jokes, comments or pranks regarding a co-worker’s sexual orientation, such as giving someone a sexual gag gift or having entertainment of a sexual nature take place to celebrate an employee’s birthday, etc.” are considered forms of harassment, according to the league policy.

The league’s collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players’ Association echoes the league’s stance with the following language:.

“There will be no discrimination in any form against any player by the NFL, the Management Council, any club or by the NFLPA because of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or activity or lack of activity on behalf of the NFLPA.”

Any player found to have engaged in harassment could be fined or suspended, “depending on the facts,” said Greg Aiello, NFL senior vice president of communications.

Last November, Miami offensive lineman Richie Incognito, who was the instigator in a bullying incident involving teammate Jonathan Martin, was suspended without pay for four games — the maximum under the collective bargaining agreement — and eventually was deactivated for the remaining four games of the season.

On Friday, an independent report ordered by the NFL revealed that in addition to Incognito, fellow offensive linemen John Jerry and Mike Pouncey also harassed Martin, another player and an assistant trainer. The other harassed player was subjected to homophobic name-calling and improper physical touching, while the assistant trainer, who was born in Japan, was the victim of racial slurs, according to the report.

As of Friday, the NFL had not announced further punishment of Incognito or measures against Pouncey and Jerry.

The Dolphins’ harassment was not limited to the locker room. Incognito sent threatening texts to Martin as well as behaved boorishly in public. .

“It is not about

where it takes place,” states the league directive, “It is about what

is taking place.

“Harassment often occurs outside the office and can happen anywhere persons affiliated with the NFL are present. Inappropriate behavior can be secretive and often happens behind closed doors or through telephone calls, texting and email. It can take place on the field, in a plane or car, in the locker room, at the stadium, at a meeting or sponsor event, at a press briefing, in a hotel room or anywhere in the building or even parking garage.”

Players are encouraged to report any improper conduct they witness to either the NFLPA, their coach, team’s human resources department or to NFL security.

The league said it will do its best to maintain confidentiality for those who report sexual discrimination and it prohibits retaliation against any person who, in good faith, makes or assists in making a complaint under the NFL’s policies.