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Preparing for Sam, and Beyond

The NFL’s power brokers are hearing a strong message about respect at the owners meetings as the league prepares a new initiative regarding sexual orientation

The NFL’s ramped-up efforts to promote understanding and inclusion within its ranks in advance of Michael Sam’s expected entry into the league are continuing this week at the annual owners meetings, with an appearance by Wade Davis, the executive director of the advocacy group You Can Play, which combats homophobia in sports.

Earlier this offseason Davis, a former defensive back who came out in 2012, offered his perspective to the league’s executive group, which has met with various LGBT organizations and individuals over the last year to determine the best strategy for managing the emergence of openly gay NFL players such as Sam. After an early March meeting at league headquarters, Davis was seen as “a change agent,” according to Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive VP of football operations.

“He enlightened the commissioner and our staff,” Vincent says. “It’s not about you accepting my sexual orientation; it is about you respecting it. I feel the same way as a Christian, as a believer. We don’t often think of it that way, but it makes sense.”

“Respect” has become a theme of this week’s owners’ meetings. Day One concluded on Sunday night with a talk from Dov Seidman, author of HOW: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything. Seidman is the founder of LRN, an organization that provides ethics and performance guidance for businesses. He spent part of two hours expounding on the virtues of a workplace founded on principles of respect, in contrast to the noxious locker room culture detailed in the Ted Wells report.

“This is a first for us,” Vincent says. “Getting these types of people in these rooms is not something that’s been done before to this extent.”

“Having gay players in the locker room isn’t new,” says Vincent. “What’s new is having men share their orientation publicly.”

On Monday and Tuesday the 36-year-old Davis, who spent time in training camps with the Titans, Seahawks and Redsksins and played in NFL Europe, spoke with groups of coaches, general managers and owners in more a candid, forum-like setting. He believes the NFL workplace issue is less complicated than it has been made out to be.

“People in the LGBT sports world are saying we’re going to change everyone’s hearts and minds, which is problematic, because you're assuming you're talking to someone who is homophobic,” Davis says. “That’s called working from a deficit model. I approach the work from a strength-based model, which says that athletes have always been able to embrace people who are different from them, whether it’s race, class or religion.”

When he came out two years ago, Davis says he was comforted by former teammates who reached out to him in support but was dogged by the thought of the player he might have become had he not spent so much effort hiding his sexuality. In his smaller meetings with NFL personnel, he provided a broader understanding and perspective of the gay athlete, and addressed issues including:

• How to enhance the current NFL culture to ensure that gay players feel welcome

• How to change the NFL's public perception regarding gay players

• How the NFL shapes societal views of LGBT people

• How the NFL can ensure it gets this right the first time

Whether these groups of business moguls and football savants will be receptive to the “respect” theme remains to be seen. One AFC coach said Wade’s presentation was highly informative, but an AFC general manager described the proceedings as “overkill.” In the session that included all 32 owners, participants described a degree of feedback and involvement not typically seen in these meetings. “It got personal,” said NFL human resources boss Robert Gulliver. “There was a lot of sharing, and I think a lot of people came away with a greater understanding.” (Conversely, Seidman was called out for not understanding the limited access coaches and front offices have to players during the offseason.)

Others at these meetings might be more interested in Davis’s mental catalogue of the league’s privately homosexual players; Davis says the NFL players whom he knows are gay are “way off” in terms of coming out, and each one of those players is closely monitoring the leaguewide reaction to Sam. Wade, whom commissioner Roger Goodell has deemed an “expert consultant,” appears a logical choice to assist the NFL in the creation and institution of best practices for teams regarding sexual orientation, which Vincent says is coming together this offseason. The NFL is behind other sports leagues in this regard; NHL players have been involved in the You Can Play project for several years, and Major League Soccer formed an official partnership with the group in 2012.

"When I played, [sexual orientation] was something you kept in a close circle, and it didn't matter to a lot of us," says Vincent, a three-time All Pro defensive back who retired in 2006. "Having gay players in the locker room isn’t new. What is new is having gay men share their orientation publicly. It’s about assisting [them] in dealing with that publicly."

Wade Davis. (Seth Kushner for The MMQB)

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The league will concern itself not only with the objections of teammates, should they arise, but with protection for Sam on the road and off the field should it become necessary. The kind of attitude he might face was suggested by Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma’s comment in an NFL Network interview with Andrea Kremer on the heels of Sam’s announcement: “Imagine if he's the guy next to me and, you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me… How am I supposed to respond?"

Vilma later apologized for the comment and called the example a poor representation of his larger point: that there would be resistance to Sam’s arrival. Part of the league’s evolving plan is to put advocates such as Davis in front of player leaders like Vilma in closed-door sessions to hash out such concerns. Publicly, the league would like to elevate voices of players who are supportive of LGBT athletes and those athletes who accept gay family members.

“We think the player viewpoint on this issue is most important,” says Davis, who emphasizes that Sam will want to be treated like any other player, and separate facilities should not be an option. “First of all, we never want to vilify a player for a statement that could be seen at homophobic. With Vilma, that’s a real feeling that probably more players than Vilma have. How do we hear him and engage in conversation where he can grow and we can grow? Players can educate us too.

“We have to build bridges, not dams.”