The Anonymous NFL Executives Who Spoke With Sports Illustrated Are Not Cowards

  • Jake O'Donnell

A lot of negative press has been heaped on the anonymous NFL executives who came out (pun not intended) and spoke with Sports Illustrated regarding openly gay, 110th-ranked NFL prospect Michael Sam. Much of what was said seemed to be rather ill-conceived, insinuating that a guy like Sam wouldn’t be able to make it in the NFL because of preconceived notions about the hormonal balance of an “NFL locker room and meeting room,” and how it’d be affected by a openly gay player.

Our take: This is a silly statement by someone who doesn’t understand how professional athletes treat their jobs and co-workers — they truly seem to only care about a person’s football ability and quality of character. That being said…

To attack anonymous sources as cowards because they wouldn’t put their names behind their controversial predictions, as Forbes and have done, is to deny the inherent value of anonymity as it pertains to voicing real, honest opinions, and their value in the on-going process of building a more tolerant society, no mater how “wrong” they are.

[TIME] It’s hard to decide whether it’s more depressing or embarrassing that NFL executives won’t show the same courage as they try to ruin it before it even starts.

Though it may be the case that what was said in the SI piece was derogatory and unproductive in its essence, the fact that these quotes were made — which one can only assume were made possible by the shroud of secrecy that comes with anonymous statements — is a critical part of understanding the nature of the problem Michael Sam faces. Were we to simply hear the statements from the NFL, which have been resoundingly positive and supportive, one may be lead to believe that the age we currently live in — and the conditions the Missouri DE with be thrust into this May come draft time — is one of utter acceptance.

These anonymous executives made some very clear: The mountaintop of acceptance is still very, very far away.

So, yes, on one hand, it’s true that the biases of NFL executives are part of the the systemic issues that the LGBT community faces, but the fact that they were willing to speak candidly about them is important, and not cowardly, because the opinions themselves are true, as well, and reveal something about the actual culture of American professional sports. Are these people cowards? I don’t think so. Wrong, yes. Cowards? Ask yourself this: Is it more cowardly to lie and continue discriminating, or to speak freely about a controversial issue to the public?

Leaks and anonymous quotes are part of how things change, because in order to break the status quo, one must speak to power, and that power may also employ them. Or it might be power that comes in the form of a fan base, who finances the entire operation. Why would someone risk upsetting their superiors by going on record with projections about how this new reality will shake out?

Imagine if Edward Snowden had publicly voiced his concern at the early stages of his NSA career? Imagine if “Deep Throat” met with Bob Woodward under his real name, Mark Felt? They’d have both been fired, immediately, and we would have never known the extent of which was happening behind-the-scenes in a corrupt, law-breaking government.

These guys are merely the messengers. Do not shoot them.

The point is, the anonymous executives are wrong that Michael Sam’s status will negatively impact an NFL locker room and/or franchise. As one source put it, “There are guys in locker rooms that maturity-wise cannot handle it or deal with the thought of that…if you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it? It’s going to be a big distraction.” But they’re not wrong for saying what they think. They’re not wrong for giving us a glimpse into the intolerant undercurrents of NFL front offices, who seem complacent with the fact that someone’s sexuality should be considered an acceptable distraction.

The media shouldn’t discourage such candor. Really.

Though some of these anonymous people may not want to fight that power directly — by putting their names out there and saying sexuality is a tie-breaker in regards to personnel — they are, perhaps inadvertently, exposing a flawed, unfair system that can and will change. They were acknowledging potential problems. That’s commendable, in a way. Like one of them said, “In the coming decade or two, [homosexuality in sports is] going to be acceptable.” That won’t happen if everyone keeps their less-than-tolerant opinions to themselves. It’ll just continue to fester in secrecy. Michael Sam, in coming out, would probably tell you — it’s better to air these things out than hide them.

Even if you have to do it anonymously.