February 12, 2014

How Will The NFL Respond To An Openly Gay Player?

When the news came down Sunday night that former Missouri defensive end, 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Michael Sam had announced he is gay, my initial response was: "Oh no". It was not because I am anti-gay, homophobic or anything of that ilk. I felt bad for Sam because of the approaching storm of media obsession, fan treatment, and most important, NFL executive and player opinions he is soon to encounter.

Prior to coming out, Michael Sam was projected as a mid-to-late round pick in May's draft. Despite his SEC-best 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss, many scouts thought Sam, at 6 foot-one inch, weighing 260 pounds, was an undersized defensive end who compiled impressive stats in garbage time. Now, Michael Sam's draft stock will be the most analyzed in NFL history.

The problem that will arise for NFL general managers and scouts is as follows: If all else is equal between Sam and another player, what is the benefit to taking Sam? The team would be welcoming in a media circus, that won't just include Sam, but also possibly puts his teammates in an uncomfortable position. They will be answering just as many questions about Sam's sexuality as they will about the upcoming season. The NFL is full of distractions, and you can bet most head coaches won't want to deal with that one; especially with an unproven commodity, not a sure-fire top pick.

Is that homophobic of teams and coaches? I don't believe so. Coaches, NFL organizations, and any major corporations, don't like distractions that take away from their product or service. The bad teams have enough issues to deal with, and would not want to take on an outside distraction; while the good teams would be hesitant to risk disrupting the dynamic of a successful locker room.

If Michael Sam doesn't want to, he should not have to live his life in secrecy. But, he does need to realize the consequences involved, even in 2014. Does Sam really want to be the top conversation in the sport without having ever played a down in the league? He has set himself up to be the number one story between now and May's draft. Then once he is drafted, or if he is drafted, he will become the most discussed player in the NFL up until week one kick off.

The irony of this story is, if Sam drops in draft, some in the media will blast teams for not selecting him, citing his homosexuality. But part of reason he may drop is because of the potentially obsessive media coverage that will come with his selection.

Is America ready for this? More than ready. But that doesn't mean the NFL is ready for this. Sam reportedly came out to his Missouri teammates prior to last season. They accepted and respected him for it. Granted, he was also a senior, a team leader, and one of their best players. There is no guarantee Sam would be accepted as a rookie, late round pick, in an NFL locker room.

I still believe the best way to break this barrier in professional sports, would be through a proven and established super star. We've seen NBA center Jason Collins come out at the end of his career. He hasn't found work since. Now an NFL-hopeful, he may not get drafted. All things considered, I hope Sam gets a chance to play in the NFL because of the football player that he is. If some team sees him as a fit, go for it. If they don't, move on. But it would be naïve to think that his coming out won't have an effect on a team's decision making. It will. And unfortunately, it should.

Pete is a lifelong Montauk resident and former sports talk host at 88.7FM WEER. He's currently a Sports Anchor at WCBS 880 and WFAN radio in NYC. He can be reached via email at peterfmundo@gmail.com.

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