This morning, Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless shouted at each other about Tony Dungy's comments that Michael Sam's sexuality would be an overriding distraction in an NFL locker room, and whether it was a bigger distraction that Michael Vick's return from prison. I'm sorry, that's the worst sentence I've ever typed.
If you don't have the stomach to watch the entire segment—and you shouldn't—let me sum up the central claim each shouter made. Bayless argued that these were equally sized distractions, because "those who love dogs can get at least as emotional about dogfighting issues" as conservative Christians can get about gay marriage. Smith disagreed.
"I'm really disgusted at all the hoopla and the noise that has been made because of Tony Dungy's comments," he said. "I don't find them remotely controversial."
Smith went on to dismiss any parallel between Vick's situation and Sam's ("What does one have to do with the other?"), arguing that Vick barely caused a blip upon his return because he had done his time, and that there weren't diverging opinions on how to treat him. Suggesting that there wasn't any controversy or polarization about Michael Vick is a remarkable bit of revisionist history. He was an enormous topic of debate in the 2009 offseason, with many people arguing that he didn't deserve a second chance in the NFL, and others arguing that he shouldn't have gone to prison in the first place. It's also inaccurate to say this is about skill and Sam's being a borderline player—after two full years out of the game, no one knew quite what Vick had left.
But here's your money quote, from Stephen A. Smith, that gets to the heart of what this is really about:
I am a proponent of most of the causes the gay community has fought for. And I think that it's wrong how they've been prejudiced against. But having said all that, I think it's important to recognize that that doesn't mean [you] have a right to [people being] comfortable with you.
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This endorses the idea, homophobic in itself, that homophobia is a legitimate distraction. That athletes are uniquely justified in being uncomfortable around gay people, as if being around gay people is a novel hardship instead of a simple fact of life. That the questions the Rams will receive about their gay teammate during regular media availabilities are somehow unnatural, or unnaturally taxing, when compared with the hundreds of questions they'll face about everything else during those same media availabilities.
This is why they call it a "distraction," a bullshit, mealy-mouthed, value-neutral word that allows homophobia to be treated with the same sterile gloves as other news items. You can shove a lot under the "distraction" umbrella—there, a gay player is no different than a player who beats his wife, or a player who speaks out on social causes, or a player who runs a dogfighting ring, or (40 years ago) a black player. All bring media attention; all might make some people uncomfortable. This is the utility of citing distractions. It allows you to register your discomfort without overtly revealing your bigotry. America is damn good at blaming the discriminated for being discriminated against.
Couching antipathy to Michael Sam as a distaste for distraction gives Tony Dungy plausible deniability. It gives bigots who agree with Dungy rope to string up his critics for twisting his words. It gives ESPN the leeway to put this on First Take, this—if we stop mincing words—20-minute, nationally televised debate between Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless over whether it's OK to be anti-gay. It is insane that this exists in 2014, but here it is—and it exists only because it's nominally a debate about distractions, not about religion or politics or prejudice or any of the other things it's actually about.
"Embrace debate," goes the justification for ESPN's sports-shouting model, and on most occasions, it merely makes viewers dumber. Here, with a real issue featuring pretty fucking clearly defined right and wrong sides, it is actively harmful to society. Simply holding a debate over homophobia's acceptability is in effect already answering the question, endorsing the notion that there are two legitimate sides, roughly equidistant from the truth.
This isn't unique to ESPN. This is the product of the archaic notion that media need be objective, and that objectivity entails equal acceptance of every viewpoint, no matter how medieval or groundless or outright vile. For traditional shops, that entails rushing out to find some institutionalized hatemonger to give his opinion, all in the name of balance. But if the First Takeification of sports media has taught us anything, it's that you don't need actual hate. Manufactured debate can do the job just as well.