SBD/February 11, 2014/Leagues and Governing Bodies

How NFL Handles Openly Gay Player Seen As Crucial Crossroads For League's Growth

Some caution that the NFL's growth could be hindered if teams show intolerance
Commentary continues to pour in after former Univ. of Missouri DE Michael Sam announced this weekend that he is gay, and USA TODAY's Gwen Knapp writes if Sam is not selected in the NFL Draft, the league will "damage its most important fan demographic -- the cohort that hasn't been cultivated yet." Commissioner Roger Goodell could conduct "sensitivity training or leadership counseling, but the lessons wouldn't take quickly enough." A basic, "half-day business course seems the best option." An NFL exec was quoted in an SI.com story as saying the league is "still a man's-man game." Knapp writes, "I'm sure he said that with an extremely straight face. This is how a multi-billion dollar corporation un-brands itself, one retrograde brain fart at a time." In a business "as large as the NFL, growth and survival are synonymous." The concussion issue "threatens this manifest destiny," and so will "any sign that a league full of players styling themselves as 'grown-ass men' can't handle the complexities of sexuality like adults" (USA TODAY, 2/11). In N.Y., Mike Vaccaro writes whatever notions "used to rule in professional locker rooms, things are different now." It is "not the players' sensibilities that will be most affected here." Vaccaro: "It's the coaches. It's the executives. It's the owners. It's the old school, not the new age. So it's wrong to assign blame, 15 minutes after Sam's announcement, on player proclivities" (N.Y. POST, 2/11). In Boston, Christopher Gasper writes Sam's decision to come out is a "direct challenge to the macho milieu of the league's locker rooms, where a testosterone-fueled canon of conformity defines what is acceptable behavior." The Sam "distraction angle is the rationalization of prejudice and fear." It also sends "a dangerous message" that it is better to have legal issues like drugs or violence "than be openly gay if you want to play in the NFL" (BOSTON GLOBE, 2/11).

CHALLENGING LOCKER ROOM CULTURE: In Hartford, Jeff Jacobs writes to "accept the notion that an NFL team should avoid drafting Sam because of a potential media circus, or because his presence will create a locker room commotion that could upset more staid, established teammates, is to accept the most selfish, cowardly of arguments." Jacobs: "Distraction? That's either a code word for intolerance or a fear of the path of change" (HARTFORD COURANT, 2/11). In N.Y., Frank Bruni asks, "When did the locker room become such a delicate ecosystem? Is it inhabited by athletes or orchids? And how is it that gladiators who don’t flinch when a 300-pound mountain of flesh in shoulder pads comes roaring toward them start to quiver at the thought of a homosexual under a nearby nozzle?" NFLers "may be physical giants, but at least a few of them are psychological pipsqueaks" (N.Y. TIMES, 2/11). Former NFLer Brendan Ayanbadejo in a special to FOXSPORTS.com wrote, "The question the league faces: Are you going to embrace them or perpetuate the belief that the NFL is one of the last closets in America?" Whatever happens, this will be the "most highly anticipated second day of the NFL Draft in history" (FOXSPORTS.com, 2/10). In L.A., Bill Plaschke writes, "Michael Sam will have no trouble surviving the NFL. Here’s hoping the NFL will be smart enough to survive him" (L.A. TIMES, 2/11). In San Jose, Marcus Thompson writes, “Discrimination, bigotry, prejudice, hatred -- society will be better when these things are pushed aside. And sports is one of the mainstream cultures still clinging to thought processes tainted by those elements." These "jolts of real life are good for sports" (SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS, 2/11). 

LOCATION IS EVERYTHING: USA TODAY's Jarrett Bell writes Sam will “test a league that has yet to show it’s prepared for this social breakthrough.” As an “institution, the NFL has done its part with policies that address inclusion and the work-place environment." But the team that selects Sam "is of extreme importance," as some are "better equipped than others to handle the attention." He needs to "land with a team with a strong front office" (USA TODAY, 2/11). In Tampa, Gary Shelton writes some NFL locker rooms are "like stepping into a bank lobby," with veterans and "strong coaches, and the players there are mostly about business." There also are those that are "frat houses, where some loudmouth always thinks he's funny, where younger players are the fodder for the pranks of older ones." Shelton: "Which locker room does Sam get? His career might depend upon it" (TAMPA BAY TIMES, 2/11). ESPN's J.A. Adande said, "There are only a small number of organizations that have the proper culture and structure and support to accommodate this situation, the additional scrutiny that's going to come with drafting Michael Sam … so that's going to limit the pool of teams that are capable of drafting him" ("Around The Horn," ESPN, 2/10). Empire Athletes agent Joe Barkett, who represents Sam, last night said "98 to 99 percent” of the responses from NFL teams have been "extremely positive." Another NFL agent said that he would "seek out 'progressive' teams and coaches, naming the Seahawks’ Pete Carroll, Eagles' Chip Kelly and 49ers' Jim Harbaugh." Barkett said, "I am going to plan to approach all 32 teams regarding Mike and gauge their interest on him no matter what" (CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, 2/11). In Pittsburgh, Gene Collier writes there are "plenty of places in the modern NFL that could handle that, although I’m not sure they constitute the majority of franchises." Steelers Chair Dan Rooney "wouldn't shrink from this for a second." The Eagles, 49ers and Colts also could "provide both the leadership and opportunity for the Sam story to blossom" (PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE, 2/11). 

SEARCHING FOR SIMILARITIES: Fox analyst and former NFL coach Brian Billick said that what could "work in Sam's favor" is how Chargers LB Manti Te'o "handled the scrutiny after being victimized by a hoax involving a fake dead girlfriend." In N.Y., Ben Shpigel notes Te'o was drafted in the second round last year by the Chargers, and was "embraced in his locker room and proceeded to have a solid rookie season" (N.Y. TIMES, 2/11). In Seattle, Larry Stone writes, "I foresee a Manti Te'o outcome, where the anticipated 'circus' dissipates quickly, and the player is allowed by his peers to prove his ability on the field. And to forge his interpersonal locker room relationships by dint of his attitude, work ethic and personality." Stone: "I lean toward the thinking of longtime NFL agent Leigh Steinberg, who told me Monday: 'Five years from today, no one will even remember this. The sport is more than ready for it'" (SEATTLE TIMES, 2/11). 

WE GOT YOUR BACK: The N.Y. TIMES' Shpigel notes the Giants and Lions were among several NFL teams yesterday that issued statements supporting Sam’s decision, while Packers coach Mike McCarthy called Sam "a courageous young man" and said "we've got room" for any player that can produce on the field and be a good teammate (N.Y. TIMES, 2/11). Patriots Owner Robert Kraft said, "If a player were gay and came into this locker room, it would be the most supportive system. He'd gain strength by being in here" (BOSTON HERALD, 2/11). Panthers WR Steve Smith said, "I think his ability to play football will determine his ability to be accepted. If you can play football, that's what you're there for." Former NFLer Johnnie Morton: "A majority of guys won't care. A small handful of guys will take him under their wings or respect him highly" (L.A. TIMES, 2/11). Colts LB Pat Angerer: "If he's a good guy, plays football tough, I could care less. I don't think it's a problem at all. It's none of my business" (INDIANAPOLIS STAR, 2/11). NFL Network analyst and former NFL GM Charley Casserly said, "We knew of some gay players we had with the Redskins. Everybody in the building knew they were gay. It was no issue in the locker room" (MIAMI HERALD, 2/11). Former NFLer Wade Davis in a special to THE MMQB wrote, "Michael isn't planning on running to the media when people make stupid comments, whether they’re from fans or a smattering of players, or when teams ask him difficult questions at the combine. He’s looking to protect his teammates, his coaches, his team and the NFL" (MMQB.SI.com, 2/10).

GOING TO BE BUMPS IN THE ROAD: In N.Y., Manish Mehta notes Sam "fell 70 spots on the CBS draft board overnight after he went public." NFL evaluators who have "graded him to be a late-round pick may choose to pass altogether, believing his ability to improve the team isn’t enough to deal with the heightened level of distraction" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 2/11). Former NFLer Patrick Crayton on Sunday night tweeted, "Oh wow!!! There goes the NFL! ... stay in the closet." Giants CB Charles James posted, "When did this become a heroic act?" (TWITTER.com, 2/10). Former NFLer Chris Kluwe said of what Sam can expect in NFL locker rooms, "They're going to press you. They're going to try to put you in uncomfortable situations, because they want to see, will you hold up under this pressure?" Vikings DT Kevin Williams said, "Guys are going to joke with you, and if you're able to take a joke, play around, mess around, the better it'll be." USA TODAY's Tom Pelissero writes Sam has "set up his career as a litmus test for openly gay athletes' ability to assimilate into major American pro sports" (USA TODAY, 2/11). Lions WR Nate Burleson said, "You're going to go to stadiums that are harsh and people don't care if they hurt your feelings." NFL Network's Brian Baldinger: "There are going to be teams that's not going to draft this player because of this particular flag" ("NFL Total Access," NFL Network, 2/10). ESPN analyst and former NFL GM Bill Polian said, "You’re going to get expert, professional, wide-ranging public relations advice in order to help. ... A club is not equipped to handle this level of scrutiny” (“NFL Insiders,” ESPN2, 2/10). A USA TODAY editorial is written under the header, "Mizzou's Sam Tackles A Last Bastion Of Intolerance" (USA TODAY, 2/11).
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