OK, so is the NFL ready for an openly gay player? It has no choice
As much as the public (and media) might make you want to believe the NFL is full of 'dumb jocks,' it can handle the arrival of an openly gay player.
Let me attempt to answer the question of the moment in the NFL. You know the one: Is the NFL ready for an openly gay player?
The way it is so often asked -- how I hear it posited most often on radio and television -- almost always presupposes the answer. So often people who have spent little to no time in an NFL locker room environment, or have discussed topics above and beyond football with NFL decision makers, convey their own stereotypes with the mere manner in which the question is posed. There is that slight air of disdain in their voice.
It strikes me as a bit ironic that a topic about heightened awareness and sensitivity in the aftermath of Michael Sam making his courageous decision to come out of the closet tends to bring out so many of people's own biases about football players as being "dumb jocks" or quasi-Neanderthals who can't deal with the presence of a homosexual in their ranks. They point to a few backward comments on Twitter by a vocal minority who by no means speak for the thousands of men who will comprise NFL locker rooms when team facilities open back up in the spring. That would be like suggesting that the lunatic fringe that might call in to a talk show yelling incoherently represents the average sports fan.
For every Richie Incognito that someone might point to as the poster boy for rampant football player intolerance or stunted emotional growth, I could point to 10 Maurice Jones-Drews, or Larry Fitzgeralds or Russell Wilsons or Charles Tillmans or Ryan Clarks or Jeff Saturdays or Peyton Mannings or Torrey Smiths or Drew Brees. I could go on and on. So many of the men who play this game, and who lead their teams, would much sooner, I believe, embrace a pioneer like Sam -- regardless of their own personal religious beliefs on homosexuality -- than they would perpetuate intolerant behavior or allow it to manifest itself in their locker rooms.
For every NFL decision-maker stuck in the dark ages, who might take shots at this young man anonymously or predict his imminent doom as a football prospect, I believe, there are at least as many forward-thinking, progressive team-builders who would not run from the challenge of trying to provide Sam with a positive workplace environment.
But first, allow me to take a step back here, if you will, to review a little history before I try to predict the future.
There have been gay men functioning in the NFL for decades. It isn't new. Gay people are involved in every walk of life, have been forever, and yes, that includes every realm of professional sports. And, most definitely, even the super macho NFL (and, please, are there really people out there who believe that being gay and being an elite athlete playing a violent and physical game are somehow incongruous? Is that part of the groupthink that seems to indicate this league won't be able to handle a single out player in the year 2014?).
True, there were no openly gay men in the NFL before, but there have been plenty of instances when teammates had every suspicion that a gay teammate was among them. It's something guys have been dealing with. It hasn't resulted in a single instance of major drama, or workplace harassment, that any of us are aware of. Never once, in all of the stories written about all of the teams in NFL history, have we heard the parable about a locker room torn asunder because there happened to be a gay man or two among the ranks. Simply hasn't happened.
And, in more recent history, consider what just transpired at the University of Missouri this past season. Sam came out to his teammates this summer, they rallied behind him, protected him, kept his revelation a secret, showed him the ultimate respect. In this day and age where most of these NFL executives -- some of whom have displayed their own backward leanings through the anonymous quotes they have given about this situation -- cannot keep a secret themselves; at a time when seemingly everything gets revealed prematurely on social media; when no one can control the message -- somehow this collection of teenagers and college kids managed to isolate the outside world for the benefit of their teammate.
Not only was Sam's personal life not an issue, his revelation may have been an inspiration. The bravery he displayed only further forged their bond, the Tigers had a great season, Sam was named the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, and, in the process, built up enough confidence and gumption and bravery to then himself share his secret with the rest of the world, on his own terms, before the combine. Pretty damn special if you ask me, all the way around, by a group of kids in a college town where everyone knows everyone else's business.
But now, as the naysayers and doomsdayers tell it, I'm supposed to believe that one young man's sexual preference would be such "a distraction" it would deter his career; an inspiring kid, who has overcome a harrowing upbringing with siblings murdered and others incarcerated to reach this point, would now bring so much "baggage" to a team, that, oh my god, it just might sabotage whatever team is crazy enough to draft him? I mean, is that the underlying assumption when people throw around loaded words like that? That most NFL teams are full of backward barbarians who might beat him up or shun him or harass him to the point where it would be untenable for all parties? Do people really believe that tripe? Do we not think that there are any number of NFL players, coaches and execs who might have a gay uncle or gay sister or gay brother or gay friend, and who are mentally capable of dealing with a gay player as someone deserving of a modicum of decorum?
Does this speak to a connotation that these 32 entities, many worth more than a billion dollars, owned by champions of the business world, managed and coached by some of the most qualified leaders from any capacity, could be brought to a standstill because they drafted a player who is openly and proudly gay?
Am I supposed to believe that, despite there being gay players on high school and college and pro teams for years, that, now, the fact that Sam is out of the closet, causes some kind of chaos in the locker room after practice? Seriously, the idea of mass showering is now an issue? Is the implication that somehow Sam, an individual who already is going to have to bear a burden unlike anything anyone has dealt with in team pro sports in quite some time, is going to do anything that would in any way bring more attention to his sexuality? Has anyone who has heard him speak about this process -- and the grace and humility and maturity he has displayed in telling his story -- then really turned around and truly wondered what the hell will happen when the showers come on?
Because that's ridiculous. There is no way he will do anything to amplify what might be, for some, a potentially awkward showering dynamic at first, and it's beyond condescending to suggest anything else. And if some teammate really has a problem with it, then he can wait for the five minutes to pass before the rookie is out of the shower and back in a towel. Please.
There are some long-time execs and personnel men, many of whose opinions I value, who have said privately that they would prefer their team not draft Sam. Some would rather not deal with it at all, and, frankly, the fact it has taken this long for someone to make this highly personal and bold decision to come out during their playing career has allowed many to keep their heads in the sand and pretend that they won't have to deal with outward homosexuality. Some of these execs have suggested to me that maybe Sam doesn't get drafted at all because of his sexuality. We have examples of this already.
Internet gossip about free-agent safety Kerry Rhodes' sexuality just may have led to Rhodes, a player clearly worthy of an NFL roster spot, being out of the NFL for the entire 2013 season. And Jason Collins has not been able to find work in the NBA after coming out last April as he hit free agency, albeit as a 34-year-old.
I'm not going to sit here and tell you the NFL is the most highly evolved model on the planet. But it's also not a cartel of former high-school bullies, either. Far from it.
I'm not naive. There are criminals in the NFL, truly bad guys, people in this league in various capacities (hardly just players), who frankly, I wouldn't want my loved ones being around. But you know what? I could say the same thing about plenty of CEOs and television executives and newspaper editors and, back in my old busboying days, bartenders and managers I have come across as well. And if anything, the sport of football in and of itself requires a unique level of personal interplay, communication, bridge-building and teamwork across racial, social, religious and economic lines to begin with, as well as self-sacrifice, that is rarely seen in any profession. That, to me, bodes well for the outcome of this worldwide sporting and sociological case study that Michael Sam's career will end up being.
I don't pretend to think this is going to be easy for him in any way. There will be plenty of idiots in the media who ask asinine questions of him and his teammates. There will be uneasy interviews with some NFL teams at the combine (though I believe most teams have learned from the mistakes made by former Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland and others about what is acceptable to ask of an incoming employee, and what is not). There will be opposing fans who yell despicable things at him and, I'm sure, some opponents who do the same. Some teammates might belittle him at times -- the overall indoctrination system to the NFL for any rookie requires a subjugation of self -- and there will be days where Sam may regret his decision to come out and wishes he could, at least for a few moments, go back to being another anonymous guy trying to earn an NFL roster spot.
But I believe this will end up being a far bigger issue for the media, and for outsiders, than for those who are actually involved in it on a daily basis once Sam is drafted. I hope he is lucky enough to end up with a strong franchise, with a strident, focused and ever-present owner who takes care in presiding over his organization. I hope he lands somewhere proactive, where media ground rules are put in place immediately to prevent a horde of gossip magazines and brainless celebrity-chasing television shows from staking out the team headquarters (there is no reason why Sam, or any player, should have to answer questions about his sexuality during the course of his normal workday schedule, and if that requires limiting his media availability in-season and restricting who gets credentialed for practice, then so be it). I hope he goes to a team with an empowered, engaged leadership, and a culture of winning, and I am beyond confident that once his new teammates begin to see what kind of a man he is, what kind of a person he is, and how dedicated he is to being the best football player he can be, then good days are ahead.
Ultimately, it comes down to whether you can help your team win games (if not on defense, then on special teams, or the practice squad or the scout team, or whatever). It's about whether or not you can aid to the earning potential of your teammates and how you conduct yourself that will determine one's standing in a locker room and longevity in the league. That, even in this unprecedented situation, will ultimately trump any hand-wringing about the sexuality of a 24-year-old tweener linebacker/defensive end.
So again the question is asked: Is the NFL ready for an openly gay player?
To which, I respond: it doesn't have a choice. It's 2014. Homosexuals are a protected class in the workforce, they have rights, the country has laws that, believe it or not, even apply to the NFL, and anyone who isn't evolved enough to understand this is going to learn soon enough, possibly the hard way, you know, with lawyers involved. The government and the military and our school systems and most other parts of society have had to come to grips with the fact that many of our best and brightest and most qualified employees might also happen to be outwardly and happily gay. It only stands to reason that, by now, so too should our most popular and socially defining pastime. And I believe, unequivocally, that our best is yet to come.
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