Michael Sam hopes to get past 'gay' label and just play football

Saturday February 22nd, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS -- If Michael Sam is to make a career for himself in the NFL, the topic of the conversation has to turn back to football -- and stay there.

It is, after all, what he is standing up for, the right to be judged on his playing talent alone, and not singled out due to his sexual orientation. Whether that makes him an NFL pioneer or not. At some point, and hopefully soon, Sam's football story has to eclipse his personal story, as he strives to be treated like anyone else trying out for the NFL.

Not like the scene on Saturday afternoon at the NFL scouting combine, when he met the media at Lucas Oil Stadium and was greeted by a bevy of questions that were roughly 80 percent non-football related. That can't come as a surprise given his bombshell decision earlier this month to publicly announce he's gay, to multiple media outlets. But now that the star Missouri defensive end has told his story in his way, the goal will be to re-focus the narrative on football. The only question that will decide his NFL future is whether or not he can play?

"Well, heck yeah, I wish you guys would just say, 'Michael Sam, how's football going? How's training going?' '' said Sam, cheerfully addressing an over-flow throng of reporters in the media workroom. "I would love for you to ask me that question. But it is what it is. I just wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player.''

To a surprising degree, it seems as if the NFL is ready to do just that. The league seems much more prepared to turn the page on his story and focus on his football prospects alone, compared to the media or society in general.

"He's been a good player, he's been in a locker room,'' Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said of Sam, Saturday morning. "It's what you the media, what are you all going to do with him? Once he gets in and he can rush the quarterback and get the quarterback on the ground and make tackles, he's going to be a good teammate.

"This is something that's new to the league. We all will have to adapt to it. But I think our locker room has had the tendency to adapt to things a lot smoother than maybe the media does.''

Make no mistake, there is not yet consensus within the NFL on Sam's skill level or if he has enough size and potential to warrant a draft slot or a roster spot. Some teams project him as a core special teams contributor at this point, and perhaps at best a third-day draft pick, despite him winning the SEC's co-defensive player of the year honor. But in speaking to NFL coaches and club executives this week in Indianapolis, it's clear that Sam isn't creating a lot of hesitancy among league decision-makers in regard to his sexual orientation, and how it might impact their locker room.

FARRAR: Sam owns his moment at the combine

Asked if he had ever coached a gay NFL player in his career, Arizona head coach Bruce Arians answered in the affirmative.

"Yeah, I think so,'' Arians said. "And I think all players are different. When you have a role on a football team, you're there for a reason, and that's to help a team win. None of that matters in the locker room. We're all in it for winning. Every locker room I've ever been in was all about winning, so if you had a hand in us winning, and you were different, guys accepted it.

"Now the fans? That's a very different story. I've walked into stadiums where gentlemen are teaching their sons how to moon the bus and moms are teaching their daughters what their middle fingers are for -- and it's not a ring. So that scares me more ... The locker room won't be a problem.''

The openness Sam has shown in discussing his sexuality is obviously a new threshhold crossed for the NFL, but if he earns a roster spot, it won't be a seismic change for the league, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said.

"I think it's widely known that every locker room has a number of gay individuals,'' Dimitroff said. "Quite honestly, it speaks to the evolution of acceptance in our society. I really believe the NFL is quite evolved. It continues to be very progressive and out on the front end of the curve in many ways, as far as sport and as far as approaches. Our commissioner (Roger Goodell) is out in front of that. We take his lead. This league has been a really good league as far as being open about the next wave, the next generation, whether it's technology or whether it's acceptance.''

For his part, Sam sounded as if he's expecting acceptance in an NFL locker room. He dismissed any concerns about potential abuse from NFL fans, and said he would not be over-sensitive in any football setting.

When asked about the possibility of being drafted by Miami, with the Dolphins' dealing with the specter of their locker-room bullying scandal, Sam replied simply, "If the Miami Dolphins drafted me, I would be excited to be a part of that organization ... But I'm not afraid of going into that environment. I know how to handle myself. I know how to communicate with my teammates. I know how to communicate with the coaches and other staff I need to communicate with.''

Questions about homophobic slurs in the locker room was met with the same sort of measured response. "I've been in locker rooms where all kinds of slurs have been said and I don't think anyone means it. I think (they're) a little naive and uneducated, but as time goes on everyone will adapt.''

If someone wants to call me a name, I'll have a conversation with that guy and hopefully it won't lead to anything else."

FARRAR: First-day risers and sliders from the combine

Just Saturday, Newsome, a member of the NFL's influential competition committee said the group this week in Indianapolis has discussed a new rule proposal that would penalize a team 15 yards for offensive language on the field -- for the use of the 'N-word,' or other derogatory terms.

"I don't want to get out in front of what the competition committee talked about over the past three days, but we did talk about race and gender,'' said Newsome, in what seemed to be an acknowledgment of Sam's potential entry into the league.

Not that anyone at the combine is forecasting that kind of trouble for Sam in his ground-breaking bid to earn an NFL roster spot.

"I think he'd be welcomed,'' Jets head coach Rex Ryan said. "It'd be no different than any other player we have. One thing I know for sure, you're going to have 53 different players and they're all different -- different religious beliefs, what they look like, height, weight, married, single, any of these. Everybody's different. If the young man's a good football player and a good teammate, that's all we ask. So he'd fit in just like the rest of our guys."

In the wake of Sam's announcement two weekends ago, some NFL sources said a team drafting Sam would be well-served to have a veteran head coach with a strong veteran leadership presence in its locker room, in order to deal with the media attention and scrutiny that comes with his acquisition. But Dimitroff demurs.

"I've always said that distractions are a matter of definition from team to team,'' Dimitroff said. "Some people can deal with distractions, what they deem as a distraction, and other people don't perceive it at all as a distraction. This situation shouldn't be perceived as a distraction. This is an individual being evaluated as a football player first and foremost.

"I can't speak to other teams. I know for the Atlanta Falcons that's not our concern. We're focused on trying to put together the best football team, and if the best football team happens to (include) a player who has a different sexual (orientation), then so be it.''

For his part, Sam was eager to talk football on Saturday, touting his pass-rush ability, and tackling head on the tweener label that some scouts have attached to him, as an undersized defensive end who might have to shift to outside linebacker in the NFL.

"I'm a pass rusher,'' Sam said. "If you put me in a situation to get the quarterback, I'm going to get the quarterback. I like to believe in myself as a good pass rusher. I can drop back in coverage as well, (but) my specialty is rushing the passer.

"I want to play for whoever picks me up as a defensive end or outside linebacker to rush that passer, that would be best.''

It would also be best for Sam if the debate surrounding him going forward was largely about the team that makes for the best fit for him, and how quickly he can work himself into the position of duplicating his collegiate success. It won't be the ending Sam is looking for if his trail-blazing overshadows his playmaking.

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