WASHINGTON -- A Republican lobbyist is preparing legislation that would ban gay athletes from playing in the National Football League, a move he says is necessary to prevent American society from sliding into indecency.
Jack Burkman, the CEO of Burkman LLC, said Monday that he would push Republican lawmakers to support the measure, which he put together after college football star Michael Sam announced that he is gay. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Burkman insisted that five members of the House of Representatives and one senator are interested in co-sponsoring the bill, and that those numbers would rise to 36 and five, respectively, within three weeks. Notably, he declined to name any of the lawmakers in question.
The absence of any actual details -- from the language of the bill to the names of potential supporters -- gave the announcement the unmistakable whiff of a publicity stunt. Burkman's own public relations firm broke the news of the legislation. Beyond his motive, however, is a larger question: Why would Burkman even bother? Sam's announcement was met with widespread support. Why should Congress create a conflict where, for the most part, one doesn't exist?
Even Burkman concedes that conservatives like himself are supposed to find it abhorrent when the government tells a private business how to conduct its affairs.
"However," he added, "there are times when that is trumped for reason of great urgency or necessity. And I think this is it, because I see the society sliding in the wrong direction."
"I felt that if the NFL doesn't have any morals, and people like [Commissioner] Roger Goodell, who are just go-along-get-along guys, just want to appease advertisers, appease corporate America and all that stuff," he said, "I figured, well, it is time for conservatives in Congress to step in and define morality for them."
But the slope is slippery and filled with intolerance. Burkman expressed particular concern about the possibility of a gay man disrupting the delicate equilibrium of a locker room. Does that extend to congressional locker rooms? Should openly gay politicians be prohibited from serving in Congress since, after all, lawmakers share gyms there?
"That is up to Congress," Burkman said.
Would Burkman be fine with openly gay men playing in the NFL if they used separate bathrooms from straight players?
"That would be a start," he said.
And what about the obvious historical parallel to the era when Major League Baseball prohibited black ballplayers from taking the field?
"That is a completely different thing, a different issue. Race, skin color, have nothing to do with it," Burkman said. "This is not about bigotry. It is about common decency and civility. Society is moving to a point where we are going to have unisex bathrooms and the next generation thinks that is OK."
Burkman's bill, if it's ever actually introduced, stands no chance of passage. Just imagine the laugh President Barack Obama would have if it somehow made its way to his desk.
But the fact that he sees it as a potential fault line -- he floated the possibility of the bill being used by a Republican primary challenger to pluck off the incumbent -- suggests that GOP operatives anticipate some sort of a social conservative backlash and wouldn't mind profiting from it. Burkman isn't a no-name lobbyist. Though he appears on cable news less frequently these days than he used to, his firm had a big growth in clients this past year.
He is also not necessarily the best person to wage a fight over decency and morality. A few years back, his name was reportedly found on the D.C. madam's list of clients of high-end prostitutes.
"The story simply was false," he said. "I'll say what I said on the air at the time. It is simply a false story. The numbers listed were never mine. It was planted by somebody in the liberal blog world."
"My life has been far from perfect. I am hardly any type of embodiment of moral perfection," he added. "But I have never let that stop me from doing what I think is right for the nation."
For someone so fearful of a gay player entering an NFL locker room, one might be surprised by Burkman's claim that he has gay friends. He can't figure out how they will react to his new venture.
"I think they would respect it," he said. "I would hope that they would respect that a person is doing what he thinks is good public policy and doing what he thinks is right for the country."
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