The NFL Combine grinds out its 40 times every day, and the good ones make otherwise rational people effervesce. The bad ones make people tut-tut in disapproval, as though a bad 40 time is an admission of systematic embezzlement.
And then there was Manti Te’o 4.82 Monday, which promptly brought the question of his sexuality back into play.
Now that, children, is some litmus test.
It took awhile to sort out its significance, because as with everything else he will ever do, his much alleged homosexuality and bizarre fake girlfriend saga have commingled with his ability as a player, and a 4.82 40 time means he isn’t perceived to be nearly the player his admirers wish him to be.
[MAIOCCO: Whispers from Indianapolis -- Harbaugh-Ertz reunion?]
And forgive us for this, but he is becoming the next Tim Tebow, modified to take in differing circumstances. We’ll explain that momentarily.
Te’o’s slow 40 time has now made it that much easier for teams to avoid the issue entirely. And there are lots of things that “issue” can be, as in:
• Asking someone outright if he’s gay, with the same artlessness Miami general manager Jeff Ireland showed when he asked Dez Bryant if his mother was a prostitute.
• Making alleged homosexuality an issue because of “what it might do to the locker room.” The subject has actually been tested many times, just surreptitiously, and to date no team has been destroyed by it. At least not so anyone says. But old fears die hard.
• Avoiding a media “circus,” as though Te’o isn’t going to bring one wherever he goes anyway. The “circus” will follow him about because, well, because this is his turn in the barrel, and that’s the way it goes in Fame City.
Monday’s debate was how many teams wanted to know if Te’o is gay, as proffered by Pro Football Talk. The answer is probably 32, because football people want to know everything, just so they can say they had no idea about it later.
The response to that was a brief and spirited debate about where a potential employer’s rights end and a potential employee’s right to privacy begins. Most pure football fans dismissed that as irrelevant to the greater point, which is that they want to know if Te’o is gay, as well.
But the 4.82 mooted all of it. Now teams that were on the fence about him can pass and use his combine time as the shield. Teams that wanted him can find a faster linebacker and skip the hard part. And the teams that really wanted him can now reference the Tebow-In-Denver experience and say, “What exactly are we getting here?”
Then they can reference the Tebow-In-New-York experience and say, “Well, we definitely don’t want that.”
And the truth is, nobody knows what Te’o brings, good or bad. Speed alone does not determine a linebacker’s worth, though it indubitably helps. There are other measurables, and besides, coaches love to go on and on about “intangibles,” usually in a context of, “I see them, you don’t, and I’m smarter than you.” Te’o may have them. Tebow surely has some.
Tebow, however, has been a barely mitigated disaster despite them. He can’t effectively play the position he wants to, he worked for a team president who actually played the position and knows the vast difference between where Tebow is and where it is, he went to the worst possible team to try and prove the first guy wrong, and now his very name makes most non-residents of Bristol, CT, cringe.
And Te’o is now in a similar situation for a completely different reason. People will take whatever playing shortcomings he may have and mix them into a concoction that subtly but perceptibly takes into account his sexuality, whatever it might be. He has said repeatedly that he is straight, and the clear answers, that it doesn’t matter and is really none of our business, are not going to be applied, ever. He grew up in a bad time twice, in which sexual preference is still too often a silent disqualifier in athletics, and in which nobody’s word is good any more because too many people have lied too many times for too many reasons for anyone to be truly trusted.
But he’ll always have that bad 40 time – a famous time in a bad litmus test in an overblown circumstance – just to make his life even more complicated. What Monday did merely got a few more teams off the horns of their self-made dilemmas. It did nothing whatsoever for him.