CLEVELAND – Once Michael Sam is drafted in the NFL, the Missouri defensive end will be judged strictly on whether he can play and whether he can help his team win.
Everything else – even that he’s gay – will be trivial.
As the first openly homosexual player to enter the draft, Sam could face scrutiny unlike any player before him. But many of the greatest players and coaches in football history don’t believe he’ll be subjected to any hatred, harassment, discrimination or bullying by teammates.
“I don’t think he’ll have any problem in the locker room. I don’t think he’ll have any problems on the field,” said Hall of Fame offensive tackle Art Shell. “The one thing about football players, they’re inclusive. They will take you for who you are, not what people try to portray you as.
“It’s who you are: ‘You’re a football player, then you can play with us.’ I don’t see that as being a problem in the National Football League.”
Shell’s stance was shared by several other Hall of Famers, including Lions running back Barry Sanders and Giants linebacker Harry Carson, who appeared along with nearly 100 other inductees at a two-day “Fan Fest” outside Canton, Ohio. It was the largest gathering ever of football legends.
Sanders, who retired at the peak of his career following the 1998 season with 15,269 career yards rushing, believes there’s an unwritten code among football players to ignore anything other than a person’s skills and talents.
“From the time you’re a kid and you start playing, you’re almost programmed for ‘Can a guy play or not?’ ” he said. “By the time you get to the NFL, that’s well ingrained. I’m pretty sure every guy in this league has been around gay individuals before, and so I don’t think it will be much different.”
Sam’s courageous decision to reveal his sexual orientation was an important personal milestone. It was also an historic moment for the NFL and all major sports as it provides a deeper reflection of society’s openness and willingness to accept his individuality.
Sam’s revelation may not have been met with such overwhelming approval just a few years ago.
“He’s a very bold guy to come out,” said cornerback Michael Haynes, a nine-time Pro Bowler elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997. “The timing is good. If he’d done that in the ’60s or ’70s, maybe not so good because everybody was really struggling with how to understand differences like that in people.”
Carson, who retired in 1988 after 13 seasons in New York, said he was “proud” of Sam for choosing to be open about his sexuality. Carson recalled that one of his Giants teammates, offensive lineman Roy Simmons, was suspected as being gay and was never ostracized.
Simmons, the first player to acknowledge he was HIV positive, died this year.