Michael Sam will need right NFL atmosphere

Michael Sam is a 24-year-old pioneer about to undertake a journey that, from the outside, seems daunting, Gary Shelton writes.
Michael Sam is a 24-year-old pioneer about to undertake a journey that, from the outside, seems daunting, Gary Shelton writes.
Published Feb. 11, 2014

You would cheer for him. Of course you would. At precisely the moment that Michael Sam leaned around a left tackle, you would rise to your feet in anticipation. As he closed in on the quarterback's blindside, a rarity for a Bucs player, your arms would find their way into the sky. As he threw the enemy player to the turf, you would scream his name, again and again. In that exultation of the moment, you would not give two hoots that Sam is gay. Would you?

This is the point we are all trying to reach, Sam and the NFL and the rest of us in society. We are trying to get past the conversation, beyond the issue, and on the other side of the noise. We are trying to get to the point of production, to the place where Sam — who is about to become the first publicly gay player in the NFL — can be judged only by the job he might do.

Until then, however, Sam is a 24-year-old pioneer about to undertake a journey that, from the outside, seems daunting.

After all, he is a gay man, and he will not hide. He is a gay man, and he is braced for the fans in enemy stadiums who lean over the railings with their taunts. He is a gay man, and he is prepared for locker rooms that can be so backward they ought to include cave paintings. He is a gay man, and he is ready to be judged by NFL front offices who have never been fond of differences.

Say this for Sam: He did not choose the easy path, and good for him for not doing so. Oh, there have been worse times than now. It is 2014, and most of us have gay relatives or friends or co-workers. Most of us watch gay actors or listen to gay singers or vote for gay politicians.

Yes, it's time. Lord knows, it's time. The NFL, as roughhouse a league as it is, has had gay players for years. Of course it's time one of them played out in the open.

Is that going to make it easier for Sam?

It depends on the locker room. It depends on his teammates. It depends on his coach.

And, yes, it depends on his production.

Look, there are locker rooms where it is like stepping into a bank lobby. Veterans work there, and strong coaches, and the players there are mostly about business. Most of what anyone cares about happens on Sunday afternoons.

Then there are locker rooms that are frat houses, where some loudmouth always thinks he's funny, where younger players are the fodder for the pranks of older ones.

Which locker room does Sam get? His career might depend upon it.

We are still in the echoes of the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin fallout, where one teammate said he was driven off by the treatment from another. We would be naive to believe that kind of bullying cannot happen with a gay teammate.

This is the attitude in front of Sam.

Now, consider New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who suggested in an interview this month that such a teammate wouldn't be accepted because "how am I supposed to respond'' if the teammate looked at him while he was taking a shower?

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This, too, is the attitude in front of Sam.

Then, there are the front offices of the league. Which team is going to accept the above-the-norm interest in Sam from the national media? Remember, there were those who suspected that the traveling sideshow was one of the reasons that Tim Tebow didn't get more shots than he got in the NFL. Why invite so many automatic defenders and automatic critics?

Look, it would be easy enough for a team to pass on Sam. He was MVP at Missouri this year, but he's not a slam dunk prospect. The highest I've seen him go in mock drafts was 57th to San Diego, but some seem to think of him as a third- or fourth-rounder. Those guys usually make it into the league, but no one seems to notice they're there for a while.

I'll say this. From spending most of my working career around locker rooms, Sam might get more support than he might fear.

It was back in 2002, and the night before, a former Minnesota Viking defensive tackle named Esera Tuaolo had come out on national television. And so there was an easy conversation about Tuaolo and his partner in the Bucs' locker room.

Warren Sapp, who had been known to tweak a teammate or two during his time, sometimes quite roughly, finally spoke up.

"I've played with gay guys before,'' Sapp said simply. "It wasn't a big deal.''

And that was that. If anyone was expecting Sapp to say anything loud or nasty, it wasn't going to happen.

There was another time in the '90s when a former Bucs public relations man asked me about a safety who would be available in the upcoming draft. I told him I didn't know much about him.

"I hear he's gay,'' the p.r. guy said.

"Well, then you should draft him and find him a date,'' I said, "Because none of your safeties can play even a little.''

That's the thing. In a locker room, eventually, production rules. What other way would you have it?

So here's the question: What would you think if the Bucs drafted Michael Sam?

I would hope he would enrich the community, the way Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott and Derrick Brooks did. I would hope he would be a bright, thoughtful citizen for our town, the way Lee Roy Selmon was. I would hope he is a good guy, loyal and giving and caring, the way Tony Dungy is.

Oh, and along the way, it would be nice if could get to the quarterback a few times, okay?