INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — NFL teams will spend this week's annual scouting combine trying to get answers out of college prospects.
They will need to tread carefully.
A year ago, three players contended they were awkwardly asked about topics that seemed to reference sexual orientation. Two weeks ago, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam and NFL hopeful publicly announced he was gay.
Questions are sure to be a hot topic this week in Indianapolis.
"A lot of people want to know what the rules are and whether they're different in the NFL, and they're really not," said Camille Olson, an attorney with the discrimination litigation practice group of Seyfarth Shaw. "It's pretty clear, it's black-letter law. An employer is not able to take into consideration for any employment purpose someone's sexual orientation. If the answer is, 'Locker rooms are different,' you still can't ask questions on that topic."
The NFL has reiterated that point after college tight end Nick Kasa claimed that one team asked him if he "liked girls" during last year's combine. Within a week, running back Le'Veon Bell and receiver Denard Robinson said they were asked similar questions. All three were drafted.
League officials responded with an investigation but found there was no violation of either federal or state laws or of NFL protocol.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told The Associated Press last week in an email that the league has sent a memo to all teams reminding them of those standards.
Personal questions, like the ones Kasa, Bell and Robinson were asked, could take on new significance now as Sam attempts to become the first openly gay player in the NFL. Publicly, Sam has received widespread support, from his former teammates and coaches to President Obama.
Longtime NFL executive Bill Polian doesn't believe Sam's announcement should change a thing in the eyes of league scouts and decision makers.
"I've always taken the position that a person's sexual orientation is none of my business," said Polian, architect of the Colts' Super Bowl team and the Bills' four straight AFC championship teams. "We always had a position (with the Colts) that a player has familial obligations, so it would be reasonable to ask do you have a steady partner, do you have any children or siblings that you have to support. Those are perfectly legitimate questions to find out what the guy's facing in terms of his obligations. But a person's sexual orientation is none of my business, and I always made it clear to everyone we had, it was none of their business, either."
Olson said she considers questions about familial obligations to be inappropriate but not necessarily illegal.
Still, some wonder how Sam, the reigning SEC defensive player of the year, would be treated in NFL locker rooms and whether teams may try to get those answers this week, especially in light of how things reportedly played out in the Dolphins locker room between Jonathan Martin and his teammates last year.
Any team that takes Sam in May's draft will be under a white-hot spotlight.
Polian, now an ESPN analyst, said that's something Sam and his team must be prepared for.
"I would sit down with our leadership council and say keep an eye on him and make sure everything is going OK, as you do for every rookie, and I would make sure we had the best outside P.R. advice we could garner and have a plan because unless and until he makes a team and becomes just another player, this will be a major focus of media inquiry far outside of what covers the National Football League," Polian said. "So you're going to need expertise and advice from people who deal with it for a living."
It could also come up in conversations with other players to see how they will deal with the media hordes.
The lines of questioning have changed a lot in a year. Quarterback Jordan Lynch, who will work out in Indy on Sunday, said he did not have any "awkward" questions during the team interview portion of last month's Senior Bowl.
But around the league, insiders like Polian and former Colts coach Tony Dungy believe the ultimate decisions will be based on the one thing nobody can really answer — how well one makes the transition to the NFL.
"I don't think there's anything to handle," Dungy said as he and his wife, Lauren, signed copies of their new book "Uncommon Marriage" in Bloomington, Ind., last week. "The NFL has always been, Bill Polian used the word, a meritocracy — that you're judged on what happens on the field. It's based on how you play."
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