A Division I football team in the Southeastern Conference had a gay player and nobody knew about it except for his teammates. Missouri All-American defensive end and National Football League Draft prospect Michael Sam came out of the closet on Feb. 10, marking him as the first openly gay athlete to pursue playing in the NFL.
Before the 2013 season at Missouri, Sam came out to his teammates during a team meeting. Sam’s sexual orientation was not a hindrance or a distraction to the 2013 Missouri Tigers football team.
The group of student-athletes in their teens and early 20s handled having a homosexual teammate with maturity and responsibility.
While the editorial board does not condone his lifestyle, we support Sam’s right to play in the NFL, and this situation pertains to his right to work, not the morality of his lifestyle.
It is time for the NFL to look beyond sexual orientation in its players.
The NFL is an industry that makes more than $10 billion annually in profits. It’s a serious business. As a result, many franchises are careful of their image.
How will fans react to having a gay player on their favorite team, especially in more conservative areas of the country? How will he affect the marketability of the team? How will teammates with various backgrounds and diverse worldviews cope with having Sam in the locker room?
This is where Michael Sam’s announcement presents the NFL with a problem, even though it should not be.
In a profession where image contributes to perception of a franchise, many NFL owners, general managers and head coaches are cautious of selecting the first openly gay player in the NFL to their team.
If a group of college student-athletes can handle having Sam as a teammate, then professionals who make millions of dollars should be able to handle a diverse locker room.
Much has been made of the NFL’s machismo and often-barbaric locker room culture. A football locker room can be one of the most vulgar places in the American work force.
The Miami Dolphins bullying saga involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin jumps to the forefront as an example.
Incognito bullied and harassed Martin to the point where Martin had a nervous breakdown and left the team.
Despite the oft-ridiculed locker room culture, that does not mean the NFL can’t change.
Sam presents the NFL with the opportunity to reflect the rest of society to enable the rights of all people to work, without any discrimination.
Sam, the 6-foot-2-inch, 260-pound defensive end, had a dominant senior season for the Missouri Tigers. A three-year letterman, Sam led the SEC with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles-for-loss.
If a football player can compete at a level worthy of earning a roster spot in the NFL, then that player deserves the opportunity, no matter what his sexual preference is.
Sam was the Associated Press’ Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year in the 2013 season and will be eligible to be drafted in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Of the last nine players to win the SEC Defensive Player of the Year Award, eight went on to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.
From 2004 to present, David Pollack, Patrick Willis, Glenn Dorsey, Eric Berry, Rolando McClain, Patrick Peterson, Morris Claiborne and Jarvis Jones have all been first round NFL Draft picks. The lineage is evident.
Winning the SEC Defensive Player of the Year Award puts a prospective NFL player in a strong position to be an early draft pick and go on to have a successful NFL career.
Sam’s announcement of his sexual orientation will likely affect his draft stock.
That’s not fair, but it’s the trail Sam will have to blaze.
Off-the-field distractions are handled by franchises and organizations.
Whichever franchise selects Sam will have to have stern leadership in place and have a fundamental, tight ship.
The franchise chooses how much media access to give to certain players. In this respect, teams control the narrative.
A team that selects Sam can make the selection as quietly as possible, or to welcome the attention.
How the NFL handles its first openly gay player will serve as a litmus test of football culture.
Hopefully, the NFL can look past this and take part in ethical employment practices.
It’s time for the NFL to embrace its own adage: “If you can play, you can play.”