The NFL Needs To Step Up To Arizona's "Religious Freedom" Bill

Feb 23 2014, 11:21am CST | by

by Arthur L. Caplan & Lee H. Igel
The NYU Sports & Society Program/>

Michael Sam, meet Hank Aaron.

During his Major League Baseball career with the Milwaukee Braves, Atlanta Braves, and Milwaukee Brewers from 1954-1976, “Hammerin’ Hank” amassed 755 home runs and 3,771 hits, and was named to 25 All-Star squads. Those and other achievements put him on a road to being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982 and ranked fifth on The Sporting News list of “100 Greatest Baseball Players of the Twentieth Century.” But his road to the majors leagues took a major detour when it came to eating in restaurants.

Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier by the time Aaron arrived in the big leagues in the early 1950s. But, as Aaron later said, “Jackie Robinson started opening up our eyes. But it didn’t start, nor did it end, with Jackie.” That “it” meant “discrimination.”

Coming up through the Milwaukee Braves minor league system, Aaron was one of three minority players on a team based in Jacksonville, FL and traveling to games throughout the southeastern United States. Although the team was integrated, Aaron and fellow farmhands Felix Mantilla and Horace Garner knew that most restaurants were not. Time and again, they would not be served when the team showed up for a meal on the road. A few of their teammates stood up to make sure they ate. Many did not. Nor did others, including league officials.

Could Sam, the University of Missouri All-American football player and top draft prospect who is likely to be the first openly gay player in the NFL, come up on a similar road as Aaron did? He might, if a bill now making its way from the Arizona legislature to the governor’s desk is signed into law.

That bill, which legislators gave final approval on this past Thursday, provides changes to existing state laws having to do with religious freedom, including an expansion of who is protected under those laws. It would effectively allow a business owner to deny service to customers when such work violates their religious beliefs. And if a discrimination lawsuit were to emerge as a result, the business owner would have a defense by providing that the decision was motivated by “sincerely held” religious beliefs and that giving such service would have substantially burdened the exercise of those beliefs.

Critics of the bill see it as a license to discriminate against certain people, particularly those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. They are right. This is simply revisiting the Jim Crow South in a different guise—skin color is now sexual preference.

The bill is flat out immoral, most likely unconstitutional, and mind-bogglingly biased. If that’s not enough on its face, imagine a football player having to stay on the bus out in the parking lot when his team shows up at a restaurant for a meal or at a stadium for a game.

Nowadays, most teammates wouldn’t stand for that. They would just as well go hungry than patronize the restaurant or refuse to enter the stadium for the game. Or they would have to go into the restaurant hoping that the staff would agree to prepare a takeout meal or arrive at the stadium hoping law enforcement doesn’t block the bus. Make no mistake: these are the kinds of dimensions being set up if Jan Brewer, Governor of Arizona, signs the bill into law.

As things stand today, the NFL has plans for the upcoming Super Bowl to be played in Arizona. Unlike MLB of yesteryear, the NFL has been making nice noises about welcoming Michael Sam into its stadiums. So, the league needs to flex its muscles and tell the state that it won’t be coming there if officials pass laws allowing businesses to deny service to customers on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, or gender preference for a mate. For the NFL and all professional and college sports leagues that are encouraging diversity, not doing so means simply being politically correct in rhetoric but not behavior.

Let’s face it: the Governor of Arizona is thinking about signing into law a form of legalized discrimination. The NFL and every other league with a team in Arizona should not wait to see what she does. It shouldn’t take images of Hank Aaron eating alone or with his fellow minority teammates to get them all to say, together and loudly, that this is unacceptable. If anything, it’s the Arizona legislators—not people like Michael Sam—who ought to end up eating out in the parking lot.

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is the Drs. William F. and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor and head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center. Lee H. Igel, PhD, is associate professor in the Tisch Center at New York University. Both are affiliated with NYU’s Sports and Society Program.

Source: Forbes Business

 
 
 

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