Analysis  

 

Michael Sam's barrier-breaking status makes him NFL test case

Late Sunday night, the text from an NFL team's personnel executive arrived:

"You grade and rank him like all the other DEs."

Perhaps that executive is a Pollyanna for the shoulder pad set, hoping to see only smooth sailing through even the thorniest topic. For Michael Sam, though, the executive's take represents what is simultaneously the best-case scenario and a not-so-great reality.

Sam, the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year, became the first openly gay NFL prospect in history on Sunday night. The executive's limited evaluation of what that means for Sam now, so very early in a draft process that has yet to even reach the NFL Scouting Combine and will stretch all the way to May, is good news in one way, because if that is how Sam is measured, it would mean his sexual orientation will not have invited the same kind of bizarre chatter that at least one player encountered at last year's combine, when he was asked if he liked girls. The bad news is that Sam's ranking will not put him in a high round -- not because of nebulous concerns about how he would fit into a locker room, but because of more rudimentary issues regarding how he would fit into a defense.

Listed at 6-foot-2 and lacking in counter moves, Sam is a tweener who just became a test case. His voluntary outing has made the NFL, ready or not, into a vessel for finally toppling one of sports' most intractable taboos: that of the gay male athlete.

The NFL's readiness for such a critical moment remains in question. The "chatter that was inappropriate" -- as Robert Gulliver, the league's top human resources executive, characterized it -- that led to Nick Kasa being asked about his interest in the opposite sex last year suggests that, beyond each high-minded statement issued from Park Avenue about the league office's embrace of Sam, there might still be some work to be done on the casual, day-to-day level. Former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe has alleged that a coach used homophobic language around him, and that he lost his job because he publicly backed same-sex marriage ballot initiatives. Jonathan Vilma recently told Andrea Kremer that he wondered how he was supposed to respond if a gay teammate looked at him in the shower; he also said a gay player would not be as accepted as readily as we might think.

That might be a depressing supposition of what the reaction would be inside the NFL's cloistered locker rooms. Here, then, is the hopeful reality: Sam told his Missouri teammates that he was gay before last season -- these are 18-to-23-year-olds, remember, not the presumably more mature adults who play in the NFL -- and they essentially shrugged. Then the Tigers completed a 12-2 season, undercutting the idea that having a gay player in their midst would bring delicate locker-room chemistry to such a boil that the team would cease to function effectively.

"It's going to be interesting," said a personnel executive for another NFL team. "It will be an issue with some people, but not as big as the media might make it. There's ignorant people. There is still racism out there. But there are enough owners who will put the pressure on the coach and personnel people saying, 'This is OK.' I can see, from a high level, pushing. He's not going to get knocked by the entire league."

NFL locker rooms are much like every other workplace, particularly those populated by decidedly young, often rich, men. They are full of bluster and bravado and the kind of banter that -- taken out of context -- would make even some of their contemporaries blush. And, like America, they house a wide range of opinions, informed by the variety of backgrounds and beliefs and experiences that players bring with them to each franchise. For every Jonathan Vilma, there is a Scott Fujita, who has spoken eloquently about his support of gay rights. NFL Network's Charley Casserly said Monday on "NFL AM" that when he worked for the Washington Redskins, there were two players whom everyone knew were gay. One was Jerry Smith. The other remains unidentified publicly.

"Everybody knew he was gay; there were absolutely no issues," Casserly said. "This was 30 years ago. Are we ready for this now? I saw this 30 years ago."

The second personnel executive said that a number of former players have come out to him as gay, although they remained closeted during their playing years. He wonders if Sam's acknowledgement will open the floodgates for former players to come out publicly.

There are surely those in the football community who will talk about "distractions" as a convenient way of saying their team doesn't want to deal with Sam, no matter how he grades out. But distractions are merely what you make of them. Bill Belichick manages them so well that he nearly guided the New England Patriots to a perfect season after being the target of a cheating inquiry. Last season, Belichick got the Pats through the loss of one of their most important players to a murder charge and the training camp signing of Tim Tebow with barely a blip. Almost five years ago, the Philadelphia Eagles signed Michael Vick after he served a stint in federal prison for his role in a dogfighting operation. Vick was contrite, the Eagles were in control and eventually the media and the protesters dispersed.

Last year, Manti Te'o's eye-opening story of being duped by a girlfriend who did not exist convulsed the football world, producing the biggest media throng anybody had ever seen at a combine. Te'o, too, was contrite. After he was drafted by the San Diego Chargers, the media -- and the supposed distractions that had caused so much pre-draft hand-wringing -- dissipated, as everyone realized that Te'o was just another average player in his rookie season.

"I could care less, personally; I would sign a gay player in a heartbeat," the second executive said. "The big concern is, how does it affect your team chemistry? For leaders, the head coach, the general manager, they don't care, but their job and responsibility isn't to solve social issues. Their job is to win games. There will be a lot of coaches and general managers who will be more than willing, but they will be potentially gun-shy because their primary job is to look at chemistry."

That is why Sam's declaration was brilliantly timed. The initial rush of conversation will be long over by the time draft day rolls around in May -- and that will provide those making the picks with an important reminder: This, too, shall pass.

So the talent evaluators could return, in the weeks before the draft, to a decision-making process largely free of any issues that are more vexing than the question of how to sack Tom Brady. Which might lead to be the harshest judgment Sam faces, even if it might be welcome in its mundaneness.

"The media is going to make a big deal of this, when he doesn't get drafted high, and say it has to do with his homosexuality," the second executive said. "The real challenge would be if a great player was coming out. This guy is just not that good of a player, and he's very system specific. He's not so bad that he won't get drafted. Look at teams and how they wait until the seventh round to address the 'character' guys. If he doesn't get drafted, then there's a problem."

Once the initial wave of temperature-taking on a timely social issue passes, that could be how Sam is seen. He is an undersized end with good quickness, but he lacks elite speed, and analysts worry he could be overwhelmed by mammoth NFL offensive tackles.

"My biggest question is, how tall is he?" Casserly said.

If only that were the toughest question Sam would face from here on in.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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