Michael Sam committed an act of courage on Sunday, but also one of faith and hope.
Sam is banking on the fact that the country is ready for a gay NFL player. Evidence grows every day toward that conclusion.
More to the point, he’s acting on the conviction that the unique culture of a particular NFL locker room, the one that eventually employs him, will allow acceptance of a teammate who has outed himself.
That might be more problematic, yet I think the answer to that question — posed hypothetically for years, and now about to be answered in a real-life laboratory — will be revelatory.
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Maybe I’m being naïve (not for the first time, or the last), but 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.
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.”
That’s not to say Sam will have a smooth ride. Just read some message boards already filled with hate to realize that certain aspects of our society are not ready, might not ever be ready, for a gay player. And there have been enough quotes in recent years — indeed, recent weeks — from active and former NFL players forecasting trouble for the first outwardly gay player to realize that there will be bumps on this road.
But I also look with hope at supportive tweets and comments from around the NFL in the wake of Sam’s announcement Sunday that he is gay, including this one from Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith of the Seahawks: “There is no room for bigotry in American Sports. It takes courage to change the culture.”
I also look, most tellingly, at what happened at Missouri, where Sam came out to his teammates before the season. Let me rephrase: What didn’t happen.
As far as we know, there wasn’t an uprising. There wasn’t dissension. There wasn’t anarchy in the shower room. There wasn’t much more than young players fully embracing and supporting the unique challenge of a teammate — one who has been through far worse in his life than revealing his sexuality.
And one who, oh yeah, happened to produce an all-American season at defensive end, helping lead Missouri to one of the best seasons in school history.
The times, they are a-changin’. Just ask David Kopay, the former University of Washington running back who in 1975 became the first professional team sport athlete to declare his homosexuality.
That declaration came three years after Kopay’s retirement from a nine-year NFL career. The fact that Sam was empowered to do so at the outset of his NFL career resonated deeply with Kopay, who met Sam over the weekend.
“I’m exhausted, but I’m so thankful and so elated and hopeful,’’ said Kopay, whose phone had been ringing all day Monday. “I’m all that. I’m also nervous. I was coaching up Michael pretty good the other night, telling him how he has to bring it more than he’s ever brought it in his life.”
Kopay, however, said he believes Sam is the right man at the right time.
“I was so impressed by the young man; he’s an authentic guy,’’ Kopay said. “I gave him a poem, told him how I felt over the years. You reflect on things. It’s a wonderful, wonderful time right now. Sure, it could blow apart if he doesn’t make the team. But I’ll tell you right now: You don’t make co-defensive player of the year in the SEC by being a wallflower. This kid is no wallflower.”
The first phase of this process, of course, will unfold during the draft, when we’ll find out if teams are going to shun Sam and shut down this process before it even begins.
Even before his revelation, Sam was no sure thing, rated by most analysts as a middle-round prospect lacking the speed and size desired in defensive ends. The excuses are thus tailor-made for clubs that don’t want to deal with the anticipated hassles — the “distraction,” to use the vernacular.
“The only thing franchises fear, I think, is the Tim Tebow effect, where the press is asking so many questions,’’ Steinberg said. “It’s a bigger press issue than a player issue. It’s not helpful if the press is asking every single player what it’s like to be with a gay player.”
But surely, there will be a team brave enough to push all that aside and take a chance on a player revered by his teammates, and possessing a coveted skill: The ability to rush the passer.
Certainly, teams need look no further than the Seahawks to see the upside of defying popular wisdom, of ignoring what a player can’t do and focusing on what he can.
In a column he wrote for Sports Illustrated after Seattle’s Super Bowl win, Richard Sherman wrote: “We’re a team of journeymen, full of guys nobody wanted — late-round picks, undrafted rookies and throwaway free agents. I want our legacy to be how dedicated we were, how much film we watched, how hard we worked.”
There’s no reason Michael Sam can’t fill that niche for some NFL team — or at least be given the opportunity to fail on his own terms. That’s all pioneers like David Kopay ever wanted.
“I’m feeling at peace,’’ Kopay said Monday. “I’ll sleep well tonight.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry