Tommy Tuberville says team sports are a great unifier for people from all walks of life.  (USATSI)
Tommy Tuberville says team sports are a great unifying force for people from all walks of life. (USATSI)

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Over nearly 20 years as a head coach, Tommy Tuberville had at least five former players that he heard became open with their homosexuality after their careers ended.

He never looked at them differently, but he wonders what they were going through while a part of the team, whether they were comfortable. Did they have people in their lives that understood?

"They probably wanted to tell somebody and maybe didn't," Tuberville said.

Defensive end Michael Sam did tell somebody. He told the entire Missouri football team in August. He told The New York Times and ESPN last week.

The results on the surface have been positive. Missouri nearly won an SEC championship, and Sam was the conference’s best defensive player. By most accounts, he was embraced by his team and has garnered widespread support on social media this week.

The way Tuberville sees it, Sam’s announcement signals serious progress for a sport with the strength to unite.

Football can be a cold, calculated, results-based business. But it can also be a door to what Tuberville calls a "culture of trust" among players and coaches.

When coaches reference a team being a 'family,' sometimes it seems part of a recruiting pitch.

A locker room with more than 100 players including walk-ons can be an imperfect place with disagreements and even agendas.

There seems to be genuine care, too. The family component is still prevalent.

"I think sports has done so much for relationships, men and women, black and white, all the different situations we’re involved in," Tuberville said. "It's probably easier to define and overcome in sports than it is in any business because you spend so much time together for a common cause. It's a great thing."

Several coaches say they were pleased to see how Missouri teammates and coaches appeared to respect each other and let Sam handle the news on his own terms.

Considering the sheer size of college football, with 85 scholarship players on more than 120 FBS teams, similar stories could follow. Players might be encouraged by Sam's story and want to tell someone on their teams -- not that a declaration is necessary, but in case someone needs a sounding board.

"I would not be surprised if that was the case," Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said. "Or it could be where players want to keep it private. It's truly their decision. We don’t care where you come from, if you can play you can play."

If other schools face a similar situation, they will probably follow Mizzou's blueprint because, as one BCS-level AD pointed out, "most folks would prefer to go about their business and not worry about it."

The inevitable, exhausting debate about whether the NFL locker-room culture is ready for a gay player has persisted all week. The NFL has long upheld the tenet that a locker room is a sacred place, only to sully that narrative with stories of Richie Incognito bullying and Saints bounties.

College football has that locker-room dynamic, plus something else defined largely by perception -- recruiting. In some cases, coaches will do anything to protect it. They’ll even use the Sam news as a way to negatively recruit, according to Sports Illustrated.

It's too early to tell whether this will actually happen, but coaches and officials I approached this week say they don’t think coaches would ever tell a player not to come out publicly because of recruiting.

"I don't think it’s going to hurt anybody or help anybody in recruiting,” Tuberville said. “It’s just life.”

A few times a year, Tuberville holds meetings with all of his players individually in his office. He asks them how they are doing. They might discuss offseason goals. If a player wanted to share something, he's welcome to do so in that meeting. But he'd suspect that player would prefer to talk with someone else, maybe a team chaplain or a life skills coordinator within the athletic department.

That someone feels compelled to share at all is a positive step, he says, because that simply wasn’t the case with football 10 or 20 years ago.

“You don’t always know what people are going through,” Tuberville said. “A situation like this I think is gonna help.”