The National Football League has explicitly told its teams not to ask about the sexual orientation of a player or potential player. Yet one Atlanta Falcons coach did just that when he asked Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple about the subject during the NFL Scouting Combine last week.
This time, professional football needs to take action.
Apple talked about the incident on Comcast SportsNet's "Breakfast on Broad" on Friday.
"The Falcons coach, one of the coaches, was like, 'So do you like men?'" Apple said. "It was like the first thing he asked me. It was weird."
It was also clearly against the league's policy. As NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told CNN in 2013, "there are specific protections in our collective bargaining agreement with the players that prohibit discrimination against any player, including on the basis of sexual orientation." Aiello said that any team that inquired about such matters would be "subject to league discipline." The NFL said it would investigate the latest incident.
Scouts have asked about athletes' sexual orientation more than once in the past, but previous instances haven't led to punishment. In the lead-up to the 2013 combine, teams were reportedly wondering whether linebacker Manti T'eo was gay, although he said that no teams asked him directly. Tight end Nick Kasa said he was asked that year, "Do you like girls?"
This year, several key NFL members released strong statements in the hours since Apple went public. DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players' Association, expressed his outrage, calling the incident "another dehumanizing moment in NFL combine history." Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said the assistant coach's question was "inappropriate and unprofessional." The NFL front office called the situation "disappointing and clearly inappropriate," adding that the league will investigate what happened.
While these statements are welcome, disapproving words are not enough.
Of course, there should be an investigation. But it is clear that the team already knows who is at fault. Quinn said he spoke with the assistant coach personally and told him why the question was wrong.
If the investigation confirms the story we've heard, NFL fans should expect the league to come down hard on the assistant coach. A small financial penalty or a two- or three-game suspension isn't enough. What the coach did was not only intrusive and disrespectful -- in a number of states, asking that type of question during the hiring process is illegal.
Whether the Falcons release the coach in question or suspend the person for a large part of the season, the penalty must be severe enough to discourage any other coach from ever again invading a prospective player's privacy this way.
As this latest instance demonstrates, professional football can still be an unwelcoming place for gay athletes. The NFL and the Falcons must show they're trying to change that culture -- and soon.