Tonight Missouri’s Michael Sam, the co-defensive player of the year in the SEC, announced he was gay. It’s a big moment in sports because, to this point, we haven’t had an admitted gay athlete in the football or basketball locker room. Assuming that Sam is drafted — and you have to think that’s probably going to happen because otherwise the NFL looks embarrassingly homophobic — he’ll become the first openly gay athlete in the NFL. Make no mistake, what Sam did was brave and historic, but now the question is this — how will Michael Sam perform in the NFL?
The answer? Really well, if he’s in the right locker room, like the kind that the Missouri Tigers had last year.
Last year the entire Mizzou team, athletic administration, and support staff knew Sam was gay and no one said anything. Not one public word. That unity, support, and brotherhood led the Tigers to a 12-2 record. I didn’t notice any lack of celebration when Sam sacked the quarterback either. As one of you Tweeted me tonight, if Liberace could collapse the pocket, he’d be welcome in the SEC. Hell, it took getting dominated by black players for Alabama to end segregation.
If there was a team of gay football players that rolled into Tuscaloosa and rolled the Crimson Tide, Alabama would legalize gay marriage before the season ended.
Alabama sports talk would suddenly be flooded with gay rights advocates, “We gotta get us some of these gay fellers,” callers would say. “They are whipping these candy-ass straight boys asses.”
Sports talent can change things in a hurry because sports are one of our last places of refuge where skill is quantifiable, you either have the goods or you don’t. In a time when virtually everything in our society can be faked, football talent is real, you can either run a 4.5 and sack the quarterback or you can’t, you either win games or you don’t. Sports offers certitude in a world lacking in very much certainty.
That’s why what Michael Sam needs more than anything right now is a coach whose word is the law in the locker room. Remember when Bill Belichick signed Tim Tebow, the ultimate media distraction, and then the hoodie came out and clamped down on all Tebow talk? Seriously, there was almost no mention of Tebow with the Patriots. Belichick’s starting tight end last year was a serial killer and everyone was afraid to even mention it to him. Distraction? Please. If Belichick drafted Sam it would be a story for one or two days and then Belichick’s evil empire nature would choke the story to death, Darth Vader style.
Belichick even, and this was the most Belichick move ever, traded the draft pick when the NFL had designed an entire performance piece around the Boston Marathon victims. They even had a former Patriot there with a jersey to present to the Patriots new pick. Instead, the Minnesota Vikings made the 29th pick as a tribute to the city of Boston played. How many coaches trade this pick in that situation? Any others?
Belichick cares about nothing but football, which is what Sam needs now.
Of course, there are other locker rooms with weak head coaches where Sam’s story would live forever. Such as with Jason Garrett and the Cowboys. Can you imagine Sam with the Cowboys? God forbid Tony Romo, Jerry Jones, or Dez Bryant ever said something the least bit inappropriate about gay people, ESPN would collapse on itself.
Not surprisingly some NFL scouts are already questioning whether Sam’s admitted homosexuality will hurt his draft stock. That’s an interesting perspective because every NFL team already knew that Sam was gay. So his NFL draft stock is going to be negatively impacted for publicly saying that he’s gay, but his draft stock wasn’t going to be impacted by every NFL team already knowing he was gay?
Because the only thing the NFL teams fear more than losses is media attention. And tons of media attention is coming for whichever team drafts Sam.
Inevitably, in the coming days, a few players will say publicly inappropriate things about Sam’s sexuality. And instead of focusing on the 95% of players who won’t say anything the least bit controversial, the media will jump on the couple of players who say or tweet inappropriate things and turn it into an opportunity to get a day’s worth of fauxrage out of the sporting news calendar. Especially now when, let’s be honest, there isn’t very much going on otherwise. There’s nothing the media likes more than an opportunity to slap the backboard on a lay-up column while waxing sanctimoniously about tolerance in sports.
Pearl clutchers unite — Someone in the NFL doesn’t think gay people belong in the locker room, attack!
Guess what, some guys in NFL locker rooms believe that man never walked on the moon, that 9/11 was a government conspiracy, and that dinosaurs didn’t exist because they aren’t in the Bible. We call those opinions outliers unless they happen to be related to hot button issues, then we call them unacceptable and give them far more attention than we give other outlier opinions. And that may be what the NFL general managers, coaches, and team executives fear the most — not that Sam is gay, but that a media horde will descend on whichever team drafts him and pepper players with questions about Sam’s homosexuality until someone says something that isn’t politically correct.
The ensuing result?
A media firestorm that roils the locker room.
Despite the fact that the vast majority of players will all say the right thing, it only takes one person to turn a non-story into a sensation. Lest we forget, look at what happened with Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. Have you read the texts between the two players? There was absolutely nothing there that constituted bullying, Martin had psychological issues and needed help. Give the media part of this story for two days and Incognito turned into the worst human being on the planet. By the time the NFL suspended him for the rest of the season, you would have thought Richie Incognito was Al-Qaeda’s number two man.
And while there’s a ton of talk about how the NFL locker room will respond to Sam, let’s not forget that the NFL locker room has previously embraced serial killers, murderers, drug dealers, rapists, and wife beaters. Basically, if there’s a crime that can be committed, NFL players have done it and gone on playing the game despite having done so. If you can do your job, the NFL will find a place for you. Plus, let’s be real, NFL players are already playing with gay guys. And they know it and theyve kept quiet about who those players are.
For all the talk about NFL players being antediluvian miscreants, has any NFL player ever publicly outed another NFL player for being gay?
Not that I’m aware of.
That’s because one thing NFL locker rooms do really well is keep secrets. When’s the last time an NFL player’s truly dirty laundry was broadcast in public? I don’t mean an incident when an NFL player was arrested by police or by virtue of his own wrongdoing, I mean someone in an NFL locker room publicly attacking someone else in an NFL locker room for something that didn’t have anything to do with football. It never happens. Ever. NFL players keep quiet about off-field issues, for better or worse. In fact, it’s even incredibly rare for a player to say anything negative about a player on his own team’s on-field performance.
Sam shouldn’t be a distraction, and he won’t be if he ends up in the right locker room. If the NFL needs a lesson on what the right locker room looks, they can go back to college and study what Missouri did that worked so well. As the school Tweeted out this evening, “We support Tigers of all stripes.”
Especially when they’re good at sacking opposing team’s quarterbacks.
Generally, I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but the NFL needs a conspiracy here. Sam needs to go to the right situation, with the right team and the right coach. That’s true of all players, but it’s particularly true of Sam, a trail blazer who will be representing more than just himself in his first year in the league. Right now he’s trending on Twitter, but chances are by this time next year if he goes to the right place Sam will be just another NFL player.
Sometimes social progress can come quietly in the NFL — such as when no one notices you at all.