The prospect of an openly gay NFL player has been bubbling just under the surface for nearly a year. When the crazy Manti T’eo fake girlfriend story exploded, some asked if it was some sort of cover for him being gay (though Manti said he was FAR from it). Former Raven’s linebacker Brandon Ayanbadejo said he was in talks with four players to come out of the closet during the 2013 season. But over the course of the season, no such announcement came and we were left to wonder why. Supposedly one older free agent, who had made private announcements to friends and other teams, subsequently could not secure a job. Many have speculated that this story refers to former defensive back Kerry Rhodes, who fits many of the reported details.
Then there’s the curious case of superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who gave an interview saying he “really, really likes women” after internet rumors put him in a relationship with his roommate and personal assistant of four years. I’m not usually one to give credence to sketchy gossip sites, but some of Kevin Lanflisi’s tweets made this story seem plausible at the very least. I’m honestly not sure about what other interpretations there are for a tweet of Lanflisi and Rodgers sitting on beach chairs with the text: “I know the truth. I’ve seen it. There’s no guilt. I’m bought. Owned. His. Free.”
But instead of speculating on current players, the NFL now has to face the reality of an openly gay player in the 2014 NFL draft. Mike Sam is a Defensive End/Outside Linebacker out of Missouri and he gave an interview this weekend to ESPN.
Sam, the SEC co-Defensive player of the Year, has shown incredible courage to share this part of himself BEFORE the draft, a move which could affect where he in drafted and how much money he makes. Sam was already out with his college team and enough NFL insiders knew that he wanted to go public and “own his own truth.” Add this portrait to one of an extremely difficult childhood in Texas, and it seems like Sam is very well equipped to be a trailblazer.
Already, however, gutless NFL GMs and other front office types have given anonymous quotes trashing Sam and claiming their locker rooms aren’t equipped to deal with such a divisive presence.
From Peter King’s MMQB:
“We talked about it this week,” the GM said. “First of all, we don’t think he’s a very good player. The reality is he’s an overrated football player in our estimation. Second: He’s going to have expectations about where he should be drafted, and I think he’ll be disappointed. He’s not going to get drafted where he thinks he should. The question you will ask yourself, knowing your team, is, ‘How will drafting him affect your locker room?’ And I am sorry to say where we are at this point in time, I think it’s going to affect most locker rooms. A lot of guys will be uncomfortable. Ten years from now, fine. But today, I think being openly gay is a factor in the locker room.”
I asked this general manager: “Do you think he’ll be drafted?”
“No,” he said.
And Sports Illustrated:
“I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,” said an NFL player personnel assistant. “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”
These are two pretty cowardly statements. So there will be no gay football players until 2035… And then there’s the canard about the locker room. There definitely are some NFL players, coaches and owners who would be uncomfortable with Mike Sam for either for religious reasons or because they don’t want to deal with the media distraction. If their team can’t handle it, then they won’t draft him, it’s as simple as that. But to say that he will go undrafted or that the NFL couldn’t handle it is just STUPID. NFL Godfather Vince Lombardi, who faced anti-Italian discrimination and had a gay brother, knew several of his players were gay. Lombardi, whose name is lent to the NFL’s championship trophy, made sure his locker room was a safe environment for both gay and black players in the 1960s. Then there’s the story of the 1993 Houston Oilers, where two players were basically out to their teammates.
“Listen, those guys that we’re talking about were unbelievable teammates. And if you wanted to go to war with someone, you would get those guys first. Because I have never seen tougher guys than those guys,” said Pro Bowl linebacker Lamar Lathon, who starred at the University of Houston. “And everybody in the locker room, the consensus knew or had an idea that things were not exactly right. But guess what? When they strapped the pads on and got on the field, man, we were going to war with these guys because they were unbelievable.”
“Everybody knew certain guys (were gay). Everybody speculated and people used to see these two guys come in by themselves. They’d leave at lunchtime and then come back,” Bubba McDowell said.
McDowell echoed Lathon’s thoughts, saying the gay players were highly valued on the field and showering with them in the locker room was “no big deal.”
And this was a team in turmoil for much of the season. I guess the gay players weren’t the cause.
Already, several people in NFL management have announced their support for Sam, including my favorite team’s coach and owner. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick gave a predictably dry statement on the subject, while owner Robert Kraft said the Patriots would provide the “most supportive system” for Sam. I’ve already heard sports radio conspiracy theories where Belichick told Sam to come out and allow the Patriots to snag him in the 6th round, instead of where he was previously projected in the 3-5 rounds. (The Patriots have a history of drafting players who have been undervalued for reasons ranging from cancer to injuries to gang affiliations).
Sam’s draft stock will likely be affected, given that he’s an undersized player and not an elite prospect to begin with. Some NFL players and coaches remain ignorant, and most teams would loathe dealing with a potential Tim Tebow-sized media circus. But the idea that no team will take a flier on him if he has the talent is silly. If Belichick can keep a lid on the Tebow talk and the Aaron Hernandez killing spree controversy, then he could deal with this story. So could many other established coaches in the league.
I’m going to make an inexact analogy which is in no way direct, but bear with me. Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper was caught on video yelling a racial slur at a Kenny Chesney concert before the start of last season. Decorated college coach Chip Kelly, who had just taken over the Eagles job, sent him away for sensitivity training. Many black Eagles players expressed hesitancy about him rejoining the team. But come the regular season, Cooper was playing and became a very productive player on an Eagles playoff team. If an NFL locker room with a respected newer coach can be professional enough to handle this kind of explosive story, a locker room with an established coach could definitely succeed. Most players are extremely professional and have to deal with much ore serious issues than a gay teammate. As retired Patriots receiver Donte Stallworth tweeted:
“If any NFL team can’t ‘handle the media coverage’ of drafting Sam, then your team is already a loser on the field… let me tell you why. There are a multitude of issues that can arise in the long duration of an NFL season … some on the field, some off the field. You won’t have any idea what that on the field/off the field situation is until it’s already upon you and the entire organization, which means that with drafting Michael Sam, you get a jump start on controlling the ‘media coverage’ right from the onset.”