In the 2014 draft of the National Football League (NFL), the St. Louis Rams made history by drafting the first openly gay athlete into the league. Michael Sam is a defensive end who won the SEC defensive player of the year award following his impressive performance at the University of Missouri. Sam publicly announced that he is gay in February of this year, causing people to wonder whether his sexuality would prevent him from being drafted on the professional level. Now, if Sam continues to impress in training camp, he may well earn a spot on the Rams roster, which could surprisingly help shape Missouri’s employment laws.
Professional athletes are employees of the team. They receive compensation for their services and are protected by all federal and state employment laws. Therefore, a team may not discriminate against a player based on that player’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, age, citizenship status, or genetic information under federal laws. Additionally, California teams may not discriminate against players based on ancestry, marital status, sexual orientation, sexual identity, AIDS/HIV status, medical conditions, political activities or affiliations, military or veteran status, or for being the victim of domestic violence, stalking, or assault under our state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).
Missouri, on the other hand, does not provide any additional protections for employees against discrimination above and beyond federal law, therefore employers may lawfully discriminate against employees based on sexual orientation. For example, employers may inquire whether a job applicant is gay and they may refuse to hire a person based on their particular sexual orientation. Additionally, if an employer discovers that an employee is gay, they may demote, fire, or otherwise retaliate against that employee with zero legal implications on federal or state level.
On the federal level, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) has been struggling in Congress since April of 2013. ENDA passed the Senate, however political experts believe it has grim chances of passing in the House of Representatives. The bill would provide discrimination protections for employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Missouri legislators introduced their own non-discrimination act, referred to as MONA, since May of 2013. The bill made almost no progress in the highly conservative state. Now, the potential for Michael Sam to be an employee of the Rams team in Missouri has sparked new conversations regarding pushing to enact MONA. One legislator pointed out that, even if Sam makes the team and performs well, he could potentially be terminated at any point if anyone in the organization decided they were no longer comfortable with his sexuality.
While it seems odd that it took an NFL draft for Missouri politicians to once again discuss updating their laws to further protect employees, the progress would benefit many in the state. Over half of the states have yet to enact such non-discrimination laws; states with such laws include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.