By Dan Woog?
Did you hear all that buzz last month about National Football League player Ovie Mughelli? Probably not.
What started as a post on an Atlanta black entertainment blog, http://MissJia.com – about the Atlanta Falcons fullback having a sexual relationship with another man – soon blossomed into a he said/he said story.
The site published a video of Francois Sloan, 36, a New Jersey hair stylist who described a six-year relationship with Mughelli. Sloan said the men met in 2001, when the football star was at Wake Forest University. (The Web site Queerty.com said the relationship began when Mughelli was “heartbroken” after breaking up with a girlfriend.) Sloan said he provided “financial stability” to Mughelli in college, but the relationship ended suddenly in 2007 after Mughelli signed a six-year, $18-million contract with the Falcons.
Before that time, while Mughelli was playing with another NFL team, Sloan said the financial aspect of the relationship changed. The football star paid for Sloan’s hotel rooms and car rentals to drive to games; he left tickets for Sloan at stadium will-call windows.
Sloan claimed that Mughelli said he wanted a monogamous relationship with him. However, Sloan also said that he believed the football player was seeing women at the same time.
MissJia.com published photos allegedly taken by Sloan, of Mughelli showing off his well-developed body in a hotel room, and car rental receipts. Queerty said that Mughelli’s attorney offered Sloan “an envelope” to keep quiet about the relationship – which Sloan said he never opened – when the football player worried about the impact on his career.
Mughelli reacted like – well, like his manhood was being attacked.
His attorney, Phaedra Parks, fired off cease-and-desist letters to Web sites that published Sloan’s story. Calling the statements “defamatory,” she threatened to sue for “false light.” Parks demanded that the Web sites remove “each and every reference, posting, comment and statement related to any allegation(s) that Mr. Mughelli is a homosexual or has or was involved in a homosexual relationship.” Parks also asked for retractions on blogs, “emphasizing the removal of this information from your site.”
Mughelli’s publicist called the allegations “a malicious attack on my client.”
Sloan noted on MissJia.com that he never called Mughelli “gay, bisexual or on the DL.”
However, a professional football player is a public figure. The threshold for defamation is higher than for private citizens.
Furthermore, calling someone “gay” is not defamatory, said Cynthia Counts – an Atlanta First Amendment lawyer who represents Outsports.com, a gay sports Web site that reported on the controversy.
“Today, the law and society are changing, and I do not believe that the mere label that someone is a ‘homosexual’ continues to be presumptively defamatory,” she explained. “Although it would be naive to suggest that no prejudice exists against gays, Georgia courts have made clear that ‘it is not libelous to charge a person with the doing of a thing which he may legally and properly do.’ Because the Supreme Court has definitely held that homosexuality is not illegal, an assertion that someone is gay should not be defamatory.”
Reaction on the blogosphere ranged widely. The incident involved an interesting intersection of social issues: sexuality, race, celebrity, outing and the law among them.
“Being gay may not be a crime, but no straight person wants that tag,” wrote a poster on Outsports. “It’s offensive to the majority – like it or not – and damaging to someone who gets endorsement deals.”
One writer compared Mughelli to President Obama, who is sometimes called a Muslim. “That’s not a crime either, but no one with sense running for office wants that stigma.”
One poster decried the “black gay agenda.” Another countered, “If there is any black gay agenda, it’s silence, invisibility and shame. I know singers, professional athletes, politicians, comedians, rappers and actors who have been sleeping with men for years, and not a word.”
One man claimed, “a real man doesn’t care what other people have to say about him.” That was followed by “deep down inside we all care about some of the things people say about us. Rumors can destroy careers and people.”
There was also this: “I think what’s important is how the NFL and the mainstream media react to the outing of a bisexual man. Let’s follow this closely – we have a lot to gain from a mature and accepting approach to Mughelli.”
But, getting back to the first line of this column, the mainstream reaction was what? Ignoring it, because it’s grubby and gay? Or for fear of a lawsuit? Perhaps a huge yawn, because a possibly gay NFL athlete is now a non-story?
One thing is for sure: Despite the lawyer’s demands, the posts stayed up on every Web site.