Michael Sam's brave declaration, made Sunday to the New York Times and ESPN, shows he is ready for the intense scrutiny that will come with being the first active NFL player to be openly gay. Whether the NFL is ready is another question altogether. And because of Sam's timing, it's a question the whole league has to answer.
If a current professional player came out as gay, enormous pressure would fall on his team. How would the locker room react? How would coaches react? Fans? The community?
Sam's announcement, about two weeks before the NFL scouting combine, puts enormous pressure on all 32 franchises. Every team's representatives will be questioned in the media. Every war room will see his name on the board, have to make a decision, and be accountable for it. Every player in the league will wonder: What happens if he comes here? How will I react?
The NFL has had shown severe workplace defects in recent years. Those flaws have come in various forms, from the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin saga to the leaking of Josh Freeman's medical records to the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide tragedy. All of these developments have raised the same question: is the NFL locker room a safe, healthy, professional place? Sam's announcement puts that question in a new context.
Adding to the weight of that question is what's already occurred in the locker room at the University of Missouri. Sam came out to his teammates there a while ago, and he was embraced. He led his team to the SEC championship game. The constant wonder about whether a football team could handle the presence of an openly gay player has apparently been answered without the world knowing about it. That answer, in the affirmative, came in Columbia rather than in an NFL city.
That makes the spotlight on the league even more intense; can a professional team be as mature as a college team?
The answer might not be what we'd like to hear. Already, a Sports Illustrated story has quoted several NFL personnel people who believed Sam's announcement would hurt his draft status.
"I don't think football is ready just yet," said one personnel assistant. "In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."
That goes straight to the dilemma that's been facing the NFL before this news arrived. The "man's-man" idea is twisted and outdated, and it has played a damaging role in the issues with the Miami Dolphins' bullying situation and, more generally, in players' inability to discuss their personal issues with superiors and support staff. A "man's man," according to this thinking, doesn't admit he has a concussion or depression or family struggles. He doesn't admit any weakness or any sign of uncertainty. So he suffers in silence, and the chilling effect spreads not only through the league, but through generations of players.
This is what the NFL needs to fix, and the situation presented by Sam is now the NFL's opportunity to show it's evolved from prehistoric thinking.
A sizable chunk of the pressure and the opportunity falls on Troy Vincent, the NFL's vice president of player engagement. He has made it part of his mission to raise the league's standards of conduct and ensure a comfortable workplace. He has also worked to ease draftees' transition to the pros. Sam's transition will be unlike any other, but it will also be a transition for the team that selects him as well as the rookies who come in with him. Sam's 2014 classmates will be, in a way, just as crucial as the veterans already in his new locker room.
One huge benefit to the league's road ahead is Sam himself. He is, by most if not all accounts, a strong leader with tons of self-esteem and work ethic. He seems unafraid – prepared to handle what's coming, even though it's hard for anyone to know exactly what's coming.
His timing forces league-wide reflection. The NFL must respond in the weeks leading up to the draft and afterward. The true test of its growth doesn't begin when Sam lands with a team; it begins today.
If a Saint or a Jaguar or a Raider came out as gay, 31 teams could dismiss it as someone else's challenge.
Instead, Michael Sam came out. And now it's everyone's challenge.
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