While politicians and others heaped praise Monday on NFL prospect Michael Sam for announcing that he’s gay, calling him a pioneer in the sports world, the news was largely met in pro football circles with a collective shrug.
The pressing issue for those football types: How well can he play?
“Times have changed; it’s a nonissue,” said one NFL team executive of Sam, a University of Missouri senior defensive end. “If he can play, everything will be fine. It’s going to be a story. Hopefully it blows over. You don’t like distractions when you’re in this league.... But who cares? You’re gay. Move on.”
Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith echoed that.
“Will he be accepted?” Smith said. “I think his ability to play football will determine his ability to be accepted. If you can play football, that’s what you’re there for. The other things, unless it carries over into a human-resources issue, I think no business has a problem with it.”
Sam, the 2013 defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, made the declaration to the New York Times and ESPN, which simultaneously broke the story Sunday. The revelation was no surprise to his Missouri teammates and reportedly even to some media outlets that regularly cover the team but honored his right to privacy and his choice to publicly discuss his sexual orientation.
“Once I became official to my teammates, I knew who I was,” Sam told the New York Times. “I knew that I was gay. And I knew that I was Michael Sam, who’s a Mizzou football player who happens to be gay. I was so proud of myself and I just didn’t care who knew. If someone on the street would have asked me, ‘Hey, Mike, I heard you were gay; is that true?’ I would have said yes.”
Sam, who will participate in the scouting combine in Indianapolis this month, is on track to be the first openly gay player in the country’s most popular sport. He is regarded by many teams as a mid-round draft pick, even though he was an All-American player at Missouri and led the conference with 111/2 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. Thirteen Missouri players have been selected in the last five drafts, among them defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year last season.
One NFL team scout, speaking anonymously because he is not authorized to discuss personnel matters on the record, projects the 6-foot-1, 255-pound Sam as a fifth- or sixth-round “tweener” who is too small and stout to play defensive end in most schemes.
Of course, his ability to play at the next level is not what has him in the spotlight, one he shares with former NBA player Jason Collins, who announced last year he is gay and intended to resume his playing career. Collins, 35, has yet to sign with an NBA team, although that might be because players his age tend to be less marketable.
“Michael Sam has the opportunity to be the Jackie Robinson of the NFL,” said professor Orin Starn, chairman of Duke University’s cultural anthropology department. “A cool thing about this is, by announcing so early, before he’s even drafted, he’s putting the onus on the NFL, its players, its general managers, its coaches, its draft people, to do the right thing.”
Sam’s announcement reverberated in the political world, with First Lady Michelle Obama tweeting she “couldn’t be prouder” of him, and Vice President Joe Biden writing that Sam’s “courage is an inspiration to all of us.” Missouri state Sen. Scott Sifton said Monday that lawmakers should use Sam’s declaration as a rallying cry to pass anti-discrimination legislation.
Someone paid tribute to the player at Missouri’s Faurot Field, carving a giant SAM in the snow-covered stands and using the school’s M logo as the final letter.
Keyshawn Johnson, the No. 1 overall pick in 1996 draft from USC, applauded Sam’s decision. Johnson said the only thing most players care about is whether a teammate can perform on the field. So should team executives, he said.
“You hope that people that are running organizations, that make the decisions, are adult enough and versed enough in the world that we live in that this something they have to deal with today,” he said.
Johnnie Morton, a 1994 first-round pick by the Detroit Lions from USC, played 12 years in the NFL. He said most players are concerned only if teammates can play.
“A majority of guys won’t care.” Morton said. “A small handful of guys will take him under their wings or respect him highly. You’re putting yourself out there. That’s a sign of bravery. Another part will probably avoid him because it’s just not their cup of tea.”
Sam’s decision also will trickle down to the college level, Morton said.
“I definitely think it will give kids who are questioning themselves ... more freedom,” he said.
Not everyone believes Sam will be universally accepted by NFL players. Frank Garcia, who spent nine years as an offensive lineman in the league, told the Associated Press that Sam will face significant challenges.
“I think a lot of guys in the NFL are going to say they will accept it, but there are a lot of guys who won’t,” said Garcia, now a sports radio host with WFNZ-AM in Charlotte, N.C. “The reality is, Michael Sam is going to open himself up to a lot of criticism and a lot of challenges. Those are challenges most gay people have to go through, but when you are dealing with alpha males and some meatheads in the NFL, it’s amplified. And there are some guys who have strong religious beliefs too, so he’s going to be judged. He’s going to face some things that are going to be very difficult to overcome.”
Starn predicted that Sam will be “under an electron microscope of sports-media scrutiny” for the next several months but that the interest will eventually fade.
“He’s going to go from this major news story where everybody’s going to be wondering what he had for breakfast and more details about his personal life into a complete nonstory,” he said.
“I think about the gays-in-the-military debate, and all the debate around that was kind of apocalyptic … and now it’s a complete nonissue. I think this will be the same way by the time the season gets going.”