In NFL, Fair Play To Ask About Sexual Orientation?

Prospects at the NFL's Scouting Combine were recently asked if they had girlfriends or were married. The NFL launched an investigation into the unusual questions, and warned teams they could be punished for asking about sexual orientation. The Barbershop guys weigh in on that and other news.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shapeup this week are writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael, Michael Steele, the former chair of the Republican National Committee and the former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland is with us - back with us. Civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar. They're all here in our Washington, D.C. studios and with us from Austin, Texas, from member station KUT, Mario Loyola. He's a columnist with the conservative National Review magazine.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey...

MICHAEL STEELE: Hey, what's up?

IZRAEL: ...fellows, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

MARIO LOYOLA: Hola, hola.

STEELE: Good to be back.

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.

STEELE: I needed a trim.

IZRAEL: OK.

MARTIN: So true.

STEELE: The last time, they cut a little bit too much off the top, but I think we'll get it right this time.

IFTIKHAR: Do you got any hair left to cut?

STEELE: No, baby. I don't. That's the problem.

IZRAEL: All right. All right. Let's keep it in motion. You know, the Super Bowl is just a memory, but we're still talking about football. The NFL launched an investigation into unusual questions that were asked of some of the prospects at Scouting Combine. Here's Colorado tight end Nick Casa. Here's what he told ESPN Radio Denver.

NICK CASA: They ask you, like, do you have a girlfriend? Are you married? Do you like girls? Those kinds of things and, you know, it was just kind of weird, but you know, they would ask you with a straight face.

IZRAEL: Wow. A few other players made similar claims, so in addition to an investigation, the NFL has issued a warning. Any team asking about sexual orientation could face punishment and correct me if I'm wrong, Arsalan, but that's illegal, isn't it? I mean...

IFTIKHAR: Well, yeah.

IZRAEL: You can't ask anybody's sexual orientation. That's not on the job application, at least the last time I checked. I mean, that's against the law, right?

IFTIKHAR: Well, that's the million dollar question and, in many states, it is and, you know, sadly, while federal law protects certain characteristics from discrimination like race, religion, gender, things like that, the federal law has been slow to catch up on aspects like sexuality.

So, even though there's no federal protection, it then becomes a state law matter and Yahoo! Sports had a great article breaking down, saying that, currently, 13 of the 32 NFL franchises would be prohibited by law from discrimination based on sexual orientation at the state level. And so it really depends on, you know, what team is asking the questions, sadly, and this is not the first time that offensive or absurd questions have been asked. We remember when Dez Bryant was once asked by the Miami Dolphins if his mother was a prostitute.

IZRAEL: Whoa. Really? Wow.

IFTIKHAR: When Tampa Bay Buccaneers Gerald McCoy was once quizzed by a potential employer about what kind of underwear he wears.

MARTIN: What?

IFTIKHAR: So, you know, getting federal and civil rights protections under employment law, you know, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects most of us when it comes to race, religion, gender and things like that, but to bring sexual orientation into the federal employment protection paradigm and landscape is something that this story, I think, is going to bring out more as we learn more.

IZRAEL: Super Mario, you know, some men feel like they need to know if any - if they're in the locker room with another - not another - with a gay man, but what do you think about that argument?

MARTIN: Or another gay man.

LOYOLA: Yeah. I don't know. I mean, I just - I recall, you know, certain players for San Francisco wide receivers that like to go out of bounds before they get hit and this has nothing to do with that, of course. I don't know what those guys were referring to over in San Francisco when they talked about that sweet stuff. It might have been a reference to certain other players that - but, anyway...

MARTIN: Well, what about the...

LOYOLA: I think this is...

MARTIN: I mean, do you think, though, Mario - this is kind of - can I ask a crazy...

LOYOLA: Sure.

MARTIN: Is this possible that they're looking for another Jackie Robinson, to somebody to sort of to break the sexual orientation barrier? Is it possible?

IZRAEL: I thought about that. I did think about that.

MARTIN: You know what I mean? I know that...

IZRAEL: I thought they might want to know for marketing purposes.

MARTIN: But the NFL, in order to kind of make the case that...

IZRAEL: They're looking for a gay Jackie Robinson.

MARTIN: They're looking for a gay Jackie Robinson. Is it possible?

IFTIKHAR: This would be the most bass-ackwards way of doing it. I'm sorry.

IZRAEL: Of course. Yeah. I mean, but how else would you do it?

STEELE: No. I think what you would do is...

IZRAEL: Michael Steele.

STEELE: ...you'd have someone who says, look, I'm very proud of my orientation. It has nothing to do with how I play the game, but, OK, I'm going to be out here and, if and when they get out there, then the NFL comes behind them and supports them and reinforces them, that's how you find that Jackie Robinson. But, you know, with questions like this, this is intimidation. This is interrogation that has nothing to do with your talent, your skills and your ability to perform the job, so that's, you know, the big part of this. It's a problem.

MARTIN: You assume that this is in response to the whole...

STEELE: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Manti Te'o business where he had the girlfriend who turned out not to be a girlfriend and, you know, all of this, but I still just - I don't know.

STEELE: It's dumb.

IFTIKHAR: It is.

MARTIN: OK.

STEELE: It's dumb.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, columnist Mario Loyola and the former chair of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele.

Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. It's March 1st, sequestration day.

IFTIKHAR: Hide your kids. Hide your wife.

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Right.

STEELE: I heard there's a fire sale. I'm going.

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: The deadline to reach a deal on federal spending cuts has come. Guys, I almost didn't want to get out of bed today. I have no idea yet how this will affect me but it just sounds bad, Michel.

MARTIN: You know, and as we are talking, the president met with congressional leaders today. But as of right now when we are talking, it isn't clear whether there's going to be any agreement on this. So if there is no agreement, and it doesn't look like there is. I mean their meeting but the body language is such that the rhetoric is all the same as it has been. Whether these automatic - so these automatic spending cuts, across-the-board spending cuts go ahead, they'll be split between domestic and defense programs. It'll amount to about $1.2 trillion. And, of course, people are pointing fingers at each other. Each side blames the other for this and there's been a whole lot of interesting sort of back-and-forth.

And can I ask you, Chairman Steele?

STEELE: Yeah.

MARTIN: The Post Pew Research Center poll shows that more Americans blame Republicans than the president for not reaching a deal.

STEELE: Yeah.

MARTIN: So...

STEELE: That's today. Let's check it out in 10 days.

MARTIN: How does the politics of this work for the Republicans?

STEELE: The problem the president has here - you're right. That Pew poll shows that right now and the difference is not inconsequential in one sense, but let's check where we are in 10 days. The under tabs of the Pew poll will also shows you that the president is vulnerable here because at the end of the day they're going to be looking for the leadership to come out of the White House on these big issues. They always do, it always works that way. So we'll see where the trend lines are, number one. Number two, you're talking about $82-, $84 billion that's sequestered, of which in this fiscal year $44 billion or so is going to hit on the table, number one. Number two, you're talking about something that's not going to happen today or tomorrow...

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

STEELE: ...but it is a sliding scale over time which gives these numb nuts in Washington a chance to sit down and actually do what we hired them to do, and that is solve the problem.

IZRAEL: Yeah. Super Mario, thank you...

STEELE: Sorry.

IZRAEL: Thank you, Chairman.

STEELE: I told you they cut a little close sometimes.

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Mario Loyola, you know, I read it as kind of a legislative high-tech game of chicken and we're all along for the ride. And how do you see it, man? What do you think of the cuts? And my man, skip the talking points, dude.

(LAUGHTER)

LOYOLA: No, but look, the fact of the matter is that the one thing that these people could agree on, what was it, two years ago now almost, was that they could, you know, the world would not end if they could shave at least 2.4 percent off the federal budget. And the idea that the most bloated government in American history can't take a two percent cut is just ridiculous. I mean any American ought to be able to see that it's ridiculous. And you can always scare people with oh, hungry - children are going to go hungry and all that, and that's always going to work and it's always going to move the polls. But the fact of the matter is, if you're worried about the needy then stop blowing billions of dollars on Solyndra and focus on the needy. Money is not infinite.

MARTIN: Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. And if you're, you know, focused on the needy then, you know, quit giving, you know, corporate tax loopholes to the wealthiest people in this country. What's interesting to note is the Senate, you know, recently had two different compromises that would have addressed the sequestration cuts. You know, first it was the Republican alternative, which called for 100 percent cuts and zero percent revenue and - which failed. And next came the Democratic compromise, which had a combination of spending cuts and new revenues from closed tax loopholes. It passed the majority, 51-49, but, of course, what did the Republicans do? They filibustered it. They would filibuster their grandmammas if they would, you know, push ahead there...

STEELE: If she was spending too much of my money, yeah I'm going to filibuster her. And that's the point. Look...

IZRAEL: Oh, my God.

(LAUGHTER)

STEELE: ...we just put 300 billion...

IFTIKHAR: Sorry grandmamma.

STEELE: We just put $300 billion of new taxes on the table, folks. Does that not mean anything? We gave you your tax increase on the top two percent or one percent of the country without any commensurate spending cuts. So let's at this point can we put some cuts on the table then we can wrap back around with loopholes and all the other stuff.

MARTIN: Arsalan, though, would you mind though, answering that, though? The argument on the other side is that - I mean the argument, the politics are on the Democratic side people say well, you know what? The Republicans don't care because they just want the spending cuts. They want the cuts and however the cuts, that's good for their politics. On the other side of it, the Democrats say well, you know what? If the president is really serious about it then he needs to answer the argument and actually put some real reforms, particularly entitlements on the table. And people say well, you know, he hasn't really done that so let the chips fall where they may and he's going to have to take the hit. What do you say to that?

IFTIKHAR: Well, I think it's important for people to understand and keep in mind that, you know, virtually all or at least four out of the five of the last, you know, manufactured financial crises have been manufactured by the Republicans.

(LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: I mean you're talking fiscal cliff...

STEELE: Oh really?

IZRAEL: Uh-oh.

IFTIKHAR: I mean, so...

STEELE: Oh. OK. Is that how that works?

IFTIKHAR: You know...

IZRAEL: Push the table back. It's on now.

(LAUGHTER)

STEELE: So, Arsalan, you're saying...

MARTIN: Michael took his earrings off.

(LAUGHTER)

STEELE: I sure did and I got my Vaseline. Look, let me...

LOYOLA: So the trillion dollar deficits of the Obama era are no problem. We shouldn't be worried about that at all because we can just borrow. There's no consequence or limit to what we can borrow.

IFTIKHAR: No. But the Republicans think that tax cuts are the solution to every ill in the world. If you break some arm it's like oh, let's rub some tax cuts on there. I mean come on. I mean at the end of the...

LOYOLA: No, that's not true.

STEELE: Tax cuts on spending.

LOYOLA: This is all about spending cuts, not tax cuts.

STEELE: It's all about spending. It's not tax cuts. It's about spending. It's always been about spending for the Republicans.

MARTIN: OK folks, and now you understand why it is we don't get anywhere in Washington.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: We should move the conversation to Austin, maybe we'll get a little bit more. But we tried. We, well, we'll keep our eyes on it because it obviously isn't getting resolved today.

STEELE: But Michel, can - I know we want to go on to Austin, but I just do want to round out the point and say that is the cruxt(ph) of the issue. Both sides have to come to that sweet spot to understand exactly the relationship of tax cuts to - tax increases to spending cuts and no one wants to get into that room to actually deal with that point.

MARTIN: Well, Jimi, before we let you go, Jimi, you told me about this.

IZRAEL: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: I had no idea. I don't know where I - how I missed this because I thought I was totally understanding of nine-year-old culture...

IZRAEL: Well...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...and what's happening on with nine-year-olds. But there's an element of, there's like a nine-year-old that I totally missed and his name is...

IZRAEL: 'Lil Poopy. Nine-year-old rapper. He's become something of a viral sensation on YouTube. Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIL POOPY: (Rapper) Call me Poopy Vuitton because my outfit's Louis. Louis. The kid got it like they want to shout, Poopy. What? I'm a cocaine cowboy, Howdy Doody. I'm a Coke boy. I'm a, I'm a Coke boy.

IZRAEL: Wow. Well...

(LAUGHTER)

STEELE: Call me Poopy.

IZRAEL: As you heard, his lyrics cover cocaine and sometimes guns and sex. But he also rhymes about doing well in school. And for the record, he says he's talking about Coca-Cola. And...

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. It's a drink. He says it.

IZRAEL: And not yeah-yo.

LOYOLA: Oh, come on.

IZRAEL: But, you know, his father says it's all in fun. But now his family is under investigation for possible child neglect. You know what, Michael Steele, here's what I think. Here's what I think...

STEELE: And Republicans had nothing to do with that.

IZRAEL: Right. Right.

STEELE: So don't even start that.

IZRAEL: I'm a parent and I want somebody to start investigating these young underage girls doing these twerk videos. If you don't know what twerk videos are...

STEELE: True. Yeah.

IZRAEL: ...you should look that up.

STEELE: Yeah. Look that up. You're right. You're right.

IZRAEL: Yeah. Because to me that's more insidious than this young man having fun rapping. And his father doing - they really have high production value and I support it. Free Poopy. You know, YouTube, they pulled one of his videos. I say free Poopy. What do you say?

STEELE: I say free Poopy too.

(LAUGHTER)

STEELE: Yeah. It's like, what is it like that child on A&E or whatever, Boo-Boo or Poop or whatever...

MARTIN: Honey Boo-Boo.

STEELE: Honey Boo-Boo.

MARTIN: Don't try to act like - you know that's your favorite show so stop trying to act like you haven't watched it.

STEELE: I love, I love - yeah, I love, yeah I do. I love it when they make their special meal. But, look, the fact of the matter is this is a lot about parenting. This is a lot about, you know, this culture, this generation of kids. I mean they are much more in tuned and much more, you know, progressive - if you will - not in a political sense, but just they're out there sort of sharing their talent. And as long as it's managed and it doesn't cross the lines, as you've noted in certain videos and other activities, yeah, it's fine.

IZRAEL: And I mean, but Mario, what's your take?

LOYOLA: Yeah. I think this is just another fine opportunity for America's busybodies to go about their own business, you know what I mean?

STEELE: Yeah. Exactly.

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

LOYOLA: I mean if you don't like it, think about something you do like and let how people, you know, raise their kids, you know, let them mind their own business.

IZRAEL: Yeah. It's troublesome though, that he lets his little boy slap on grown women's behinds. It's not...

MARTIN: Yeah. It's like...

IZRAEL: Now that's troublesome. Arsalan, this really different from many child actors in R-rated movies, though?

IFTIKHAR: No. And I think it's important to note that I think this is probably the first time that an RNC chair has said the words free Poopy in our American media.

(LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: I...

MARTIN: I think it might be the last.

IFTIKHAR: It might be.

(LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: You know what's interest...

MARTIN: Thank you for making history, Chairman Steele.

IFTIKHAR: What's interesting...

STEELE: My pleasure.

IFTIKHAR: What's interesting to me is that Lil Poopy is of Latino descent. And so my question would be what if it was a little nine-year-old white kid who was rapping like this, would people be calling on child services? So I think there...

MARTIN: Or the other example that people make...

STEELE: What?

MARTIN: Well the other question that people have is, you know, there have been kids who've appeared in, you know, R-rated movies, like...

IFTIKHAR: Right. And I was getting to that.

MARTIN: "Pretty Baby"...

IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: ...for example, where this very young...

IFTIKHAR: You have child actors that are...

MARTIN: ...child was photographed nude for this film. Went on to become super famous.

IFTIKHAR: Right. You have child actors that deal, you know, in much, much, much more, you know, adult and, you know, controversial issues and nobody says boo about that. So...

IZRAEL: Natalie Portman.

IFTIKHAR: So for Lil Poopy I say keep pimping, Poopy.

MARTIN: I don't know, I'm glad people are talking about it. I do think it's, I mean you can't have it both ways. You can't say you know what? Parenting is a child - it takes a village and that it's a shared responsibility. And when something goes wrong people say where the other people? Why didn't the neighbors step in? Why didn't anybody say something? And then when people say something, say oh mind your business, stay out of it. I don't have a problem with people saying you know what? Is this, raising the question, is this really OK? I feel the same way about child actors and R-rated adult content too to be honest with you.

IZRAEL: Hmm. OK. All right.

IFTIKHAR: Sure.

MARTIN: I really do raise questions about where's the free will there? Can you as a nine-year-old really make a decision, an appropriate decision about how you're going to present yourself? I remember I actually talked to the actor...

STEELE: Sure, if they're paying me a lot of money.

MARTIN: Well, you're still nine. I mean what's a lot of money to a nine-year-old? A ride in a limo?

STEELE: However much their parents are willing to...

IZRAEL: Five dollars is a lot of money for a nine-year-old.

STEELE: But that's just it. A lot of this is driven by the parents. And I think...

MARTIN: All of its driven by the parents.

STEELE: Yeah. Yeah. And - well, sometimes. Sometimes not. I mean these, you know, some of these kids...

IZRAEL: These kids got a lot of charisma. Lil Poopy...

STEELE: They got charisma. They got a lot of...

IFTIKHAR: He got swag.

IZRAEL: Yeah. He's got J-Z swag, you know.

STEELE: They also have a lot of pushback. You ever watch that show with the kids, the little girls who want to be, you know, beauty queens?

IZRAEL: I can't stomach that. I can't stomach that.

IFTIKHAR: "Toddlers & Tiaras?"

STEELE: Oh my God. I mean I spent two minutes watching that and went on my God, who is the parent here? So you do have some of that part of it too. But I think at the end of the day, I think you're right, Michel. The broader community will look at an actor action and determine whether it crosses an offensive line and I don't think this necessarily does.

MARTIN: Yeah. I just think it's, I think it's OK for us to talk about it is I guess what I'm saying.

STEELE: Yeah.

IFTIKHAR: Absolutely.

MARTIN: I think it's perfectly OK for us - I totally kick Mario's point, if you don't dig it don't click on it.

STEELE: Right.

IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: Just don't click on it.

STEELE: Don't click on it. Right.

MARTIN: It's not on, you know, it's not on CNN. You don't have to watch it. But...

STEELE: And now that you all got in the sense of what I watch in the evening so...

MARTIN: We know.

IZRAEL: Free Poopy.

STEELE: Free Poopy.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Jimi Izrael is writer and culture critic. He's also an adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. Michael Steele is the former chair of the Republican National Committee. He's a contributor to TheRoot and BET.com. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney and founder of themuslimguy.com. They were all here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. With us from member station KUT in Austin, Texas, Mario Loyola. He is the director of the Center for 10th Amendment Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and a contributor to the National Review. Thank you all so much.

IFTIKHAR: Peace.

STEELE: Thank you.

LOYOLA: Chow-chow.

IZRAEL: Yup, yup.

MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our new Barbershop podcast. That's in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

(LAUGHTER)

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