NORMAN — Michael Sam will face a daunting set of challenges that most rookies don’t have to deal with when making the already formidable jump from college to the NFL.
The SEC’s co-defensive player of the year is about to find out if America’s most popular sport, rooted in machismo and entrenched in locker room hijinks, is ready for its first openly gay player.
First, he’ll have to find a team willing to put up with the media circus that will surround him. Then, he’ll have to find acceptance like he did at Missouri, where his sexuality was a non-issue during a 12-2 season. Only now, he’ll face opponents and their fans who know he’s gay. He might even face cheap shots and teammates hesitant to shower alongside him or undress in his presence.
While several teams and coaches said Monday that Sam’s sexual orientation wouldn’t affect his draft status, former NFL punter Chris Kluwe, who contends his championing of gay rights led to his release from the Minnesota Vikings last year, wasn’t so sure.
“The majority of players will be supportive of Michael Sam or just won’t care,” Kluwe said. “You’ll have isolated guys here and there who might try to make a fuss about it, but players by and large are very much, ‘Hey, we’re here to do a job, we’re here to go out and play football.’
“In terms of the coaching/front office side, I think there’s where issues are going to arise because they are going to look at this like, ‘Hey, is this going to cause a distraction for the team?’ And by distraction, they mean, ‘We’re not really OK with having a gay player on our team, we can’t come out and say that, so we’re going to use the word distraction,”’ Kluwe added. “And unfortunately, those are the people who determine if you’re employed or not.”
John Elway has a unique perspective running the Broncos’ front office now after a Hall of Fame playing career, and he said Monday he’d have no problem drafting Sam.
“We will evaluate Michael just like any other draft prospect: on the basis of his ability, character and NFL potential. His announcement will have no effect on how we see him as a football player,” Elway said. “Having spent 16 years in an NFL locker room, the bottom line is that it’s about treating others with respect and earning that respect. By all indications, it appears Michael has done just that throughout his football career.”
Several coaches said if a player is accountable and a winner, being gay is a non-issue.
“If anybody can come in and help us win games and be successful — black, white, yellow, straight, gay — I don’t think it matters,” said new Green Bay quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt.
Before Sam revealed his sexual orientation, the pass-rusher was projected as a mid-round draft pick.
Former Redskins tight end Chris Cooley said Sam’s performance on the field and as a teammate should quickly overshadow any stereotypes about sexual orientation.
“I don’t think he faces any challenges as a player. I don’t think he faces a lot of challenges as a person,” Cooley said. “I think once he establishes himself as the kind of teammate he’s going to be, I think everybody will accept it fine.”
Breaking news, severe weather alerts, AMBER alerts, sports scores from The Norman Transcript are available as text messages right to your phone or mobile device. You decide which type of alerts you want to receive. Find out more or to signup, click here.