John McGrath: Michael Sam's bold step sends NFL's old guard scurrying

Staff writerFebruary 12, 2014 

On the University of Missouri campus, where students once were more prone to participate in panty raids and streaker romps than a march to promote social awareness, Michael Sam's homosexuality was widely known, scarcely discussed and never publicized.

Columbia, Mo., is the kind of cozy, Midwestern college town that doesn't allow public figures - especially football stars - the option of invisibility. Sam saw denial as a charade, and on the eve of fall camp, during a team-building exercise, he divulged a secret that wasn't really a secret: He is gay.

The support Sam got from the more than 100 players on the Tigers' roster was neither universal nor unconditional, but there were no polarizing feuds between those who tolerated Michael Sam's lifestyle and those who didn't. He went on to be recognized as both the Southeastern Conference's co-Defensive Player of the Year and Missouri's first unanimous All-America selection since 1960, sealing his legacy by forcing the quarterback fumble teammate Shane Ray returned for a 73-yard touchdown against Oklahoma State.

That pivotal moment in last month's Cotton Bowl - Sam's final college play - assured the Tigers of a 12-2 record and No. 5 national ranking. A season that began with a respected senior leader's revelation of his sexual orientation turned out to be most successful in the history of a 123-year football program.

Despite evidence the only people Sam bothered in 2013 were opposing quarterbacks – and the offensive tackles appointed to protect them – the NFL's old guard sounded like Red Scare fear mongers after he told the world he was gay on Sunday.

Eight anonymous executives and coaches were interviewed by SI.com, and the consensus of all eight was that Michael Sam is facing a long, cold, lonely challenge.

"I don't think football is ready just yet, " a player-personnel assistant said. "In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable. But at this point it's still a man's-man game. He'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."

Concurred an assistant coach: "There are guys in locker rooms that maturity-wise cannot handle or deal with the thought" of a gay teammate.

"There's nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of a locker room, " the assistant coach continued. "If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it? It's going to be a big distraction. That's the reality. It shouldn't be, but it will be."

Here's what I don't understand: A surprisingly successful college team had next to no issues dealing with Sam, but he'll be a problem in the NFL because its players aren't mature enough to cope with the distraction he poses?

Sounds to me as if the problem is about a generation gap: The players of Sam's generation have grown up in a culture where diversity is considered commonplace. Not all college athletes believe that striving for equal opportunity is a virtue, of course, but the overwhelming majority would giggle upon being told that a gay teammate will "chemically imbalance" a locker room.

On the other side of the generation gap are those NFL executives and coaches who spoke with SI.com. Their tone-deaf warnings of Sam poisoning the "sensitive" heartbeat of the locker room were as hilarious as that one-word piece of advice - "plastics - Benjamin Braddock heard in "The Graduate, " the 1967 masterpiece that explored the ideological divide between Americans in their 50s and Americans in their 20s.

The divide isn't as pronounced nowadays as it was in 1967 - it never will be as pronounced as it was in 1967 - but the divide exists. On the same day an NFL player-personnel assistant predicted it will take one or two decades before a gay athlete is accepted by his professional peers, Jeff Orr, a 50-year-old fan at a Texas Tech basketball game, taunted Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart.

Smart's unfortunate reaction - he went into the stands and shoved the fan - was worthy of a three-game suspension. It's unclear if a racial slur set off Smart, who is black. Orr did admit to referring to the player as "a piece of crap."

In what civilized world is it acceptable for a 50-year- old man to shout those ugly words at a 19-year-old college athlete? Orr, who is employed as an air-traffic controller (that'll make you feel safe and secure next time the plane begins its descent, huh?), never would approach the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Smart on the sidewalk and say such a thing.

But Sunday afternoon at Texas Tech, the crumb figured he was protected from retribution. He's lucky Smart merely shoved him, instead of picking him up and throwing him into the cheap seats.

As for Sam, a 6-foot-2, 260-pound pass-rushing specialist whose 11.5 sacks in 2013 tied the school record held by San Francisco Pro Bowl linebacker Aldon Smith, he's already hearing a more polite version of the words directed at Smart.

A scout contacted by SI.com noted nine of Sam's sacks were accrued against the "garbage competition" of Vanderbilt (which finished 9-4), Arkansas State (8-5) and Florida.

"His numbers are inflated, " he said. "You've got to see through that."

A scout was talking, but underscoring the harsh assessment was somebody fearing a cultural boundary soon will be crossed.

But why are there boundaries? Who was put in charge of those?

"It's like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don't make any sense to me, " Benjamin Braddock, as portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, said in 1967. "They're being made up by all the wrong people. I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up."

A rule that seemingly made itself up is about to be broken by another graduate. If Michael Sam's ambitions of a lucrative NFL career aren't achieved, if his stock plummets from third-rounder to undrafted free agent, he still can think of himself as the bold trailblazer who risked millions of dollars for the right to say: "Sam, I am."

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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