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August 03. 2014 7:54PM

I Just Work Here: Still a long way to go with workplace discrimination


 

MOST AMERICANS believe workplace discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is illegal under federal law.

It is not.

A poll from earlier this year by the Public Religion Research Institute identified this misconception, and also found that majorities “of both political parties and every major religious group support workplace nondiscrimination laws for gay and lesbian people.”

Despite that support, Congress has been unable — or perhaps unwilling? — to pass the Employment Non Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit employment and hiring discrimination against LGBT people.

So last Monday, President Barack Obama signed an executive order banning such discrimination against the employees of federal contractors and the federal government. Since the people who work for federal contractors make up about one-fifth of the country’s workforce, the order will impact many Americans, but not nearly enough.

Despite the public support for these protections, there doesn’t seem to be the political will to put them in place for all employees.

Yet just as the President was signing his executive order, another news story was highlighting why these protections are so necessary.

The Tampa Tribune asked former NFL head coach Tony Dungy about Michael Sam, the first openly gay college player drafted into the league.

“I wouldn’t have taken him,” Dungy said. “Not because I don’t believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it.”

He later issued a clarification of his remarks, which stressed that he thinks Sam deserves a chance to play in the NFL and should not be evaluated based on his sexual orientation. But the clarification essentially made the same point: Dungy would have passed on a chance to draft Sam because he wouldn’t want to deal with the media attention that would follow the league’s first openly gay player.

I have news for Dungy: That’s discrimination. He can say it has nothing to do with Sam being gay all he wants, but he’s still basing a hiring decision on something more than the player’s professional qualifications. Sam may or may not succeed with the St. Louis Rams — the team that drafted him, distractions be damned — but he will at least have that opportunity.

In 2002, when I was a reporter with The Associated Press, I interviewed Dungy, who had just been hired to coach the Indianapolis Colts. His hiring made Indiana, a one-time stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan, the state with the most black head coaches in high-profile jobs, with Tyrone Willingham coaching Notre Dame football, Mike Davis coaching Indiana University basketball and Isiah Thomas coaching the Indiana Pacers.

Nobody at the time called that rather significant development a distraction. Dungy said to me: “It just shows you that you can’t prejudge anything. Just like you can’t prejudge anyone.”

In 2007, Dungy became the first black head coach to win a Super Bowl as the Colts defeated the Chicago Bears. There was no talk of him being a distraction before, during or after that game. There was only talk of him being a great — and because of his race, historic — coach.

To take this from the world of sports and into the everyday workplace, consider this: What if a company has no gay or lesbian employees and finds that a gay or lesbian person is the most qualified candidate for a job? Should that company worry about whether the employee will be a distraction?

No. That company should hire the most qualified person, period.

If everyone took Dungy’s approach of minimizing “distractions,” companies would be homogenous and lifeless, talented people would be shut-out of opportunities and there would be a lot fewer movies about Jackie Robinson, because he never would’ve played baseball.

Biases often hide in excuses like the one Dungy offered up. And our laws still allow those excuses to bar qualified LGBT people from jobs.

That needs to change.

Michael Sam will get his chance. And whether he makes it or not, the NFL and other openly gay players to come will benefit, proving once again that diversity enriches any workplace, and fear of distraction is a coward’s excuse.

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Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at rhuppke@tribune.com or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.



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