This past Sunday, University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, an All-American and the Southeastern Conference’s co-defensive player of the year, decided to stand out for a different reason. Sam came out as gay just 10 days before he’s scheduled to participate at the NFL scouting combine.
There were myriad responses to this. Some of them were supportive, others not so much. Almost immediately people started using the word “distraction.” They came from former and current players and anonymous general managers and NFL insiders quoted in Sports Illustrated.
I was instantly moved by Michael’s courage. Going into the draft is challenging enough, and now he was doing it comfortably as an openly gay man — potentially the first in NFL history. At first, I had a brief thought about the ridicule and pushback Jackie Robinson experienced as the first African-American in Major League Baseball. How difficult of a road will this be for Mike? I wondered to myself. Still, I was alarmed to see people within the football community immediately question whether he’d become a distraction, whether he’d come with “baggage” that an NFL team couldn’t handle.
Sunday night, former NFL coach Herm Edwards went on ESPN to discuss the issue. Edwards asked a hypothetical question that caught my attention. “The thing you talk about in the organization with the GM and obviously the owner is, can we handle this guy? Can we handle the media that’s going to come along with his situations?” Edwards asked. “He’s bringing baggage into your locker room. So when you think about Michael Sam, all the sudden, can the players handle the media attention they’re going to get when they get the question asked, are you OK with a gay teammate?” Others have also expressed concerns about whether Sam would destroy team chemistry, because there will of course be a guy or two who will not accept having a gay teammate. And there will of course be, among some players, discomfort in other players who worry about having a gay teammate in the locker room, especially when it comes to the showers.
I don’t think Edwards was being homophobic or disparaging toward Sam by asking the question as a hypothetical. Every NFL team has to assess each player inside-out and consider how that player fits in their organization. But his response caught my attention because in my 10 years in the NFL, I’ve played on teams that had many potential distractions and still managed to overcome them thanks to strong leadership from head coaches and leaders in the locker room.
First, let’s address one major point: Michael Sam will only be a distraction if his organization, head coach, and teammates let him become one because of their own biases and lack of leadership. I’ve already talked to Missouri wide receivers coach Pat Washington, who coached me at the University of Tennessee, and other people close to the Mizzou family who have said that Sam is a great player and an even better person, a leader and a hard worker who just happens to be gay. If a team full of teenagers and 20-year-old kids are mature enough to handle his coming out — and they did, since Mizzou had a fantastic season — an NFL locker room full of grown men should be able to as well.
Still, because Michael Sam will likely be the first, there will be questions from his teammates and management for whatever team drafts him in May. But those questions don’t automatically become distractions. Distractions happen when the leadership in the locker room is poor and unequipped to handle internal problems, and how any team manages situations like these is the important factor. When it comes to Sam, teams will already know what they are getting, and so there are no surprise distractions. They should be equipped to handle any questions from day one, and if the team that drafts him isn’t prepared to handle those, it has bigger problems than Michael Sam’s sexuality.
Every NFL team should be competent enough to handle this without it becoming a distraction. After all, if Sam can play, that’s all that should matter. The sad reality is that that’s not the case. There are different ways to handle this type of situation, though, and I think two coaches I played for in my NFL career demonstrate how.
In my experience with Bill Belichick, the head coach of the New England Patriots, I feel he would handle this by not making it a big deal to begin with. Bill would walk in on day one, as he does every year, and tell his players that he expected them to treat everyone in this organization with respect and a professional attitude. Anything less in that organization is intolerable. Some of Belichick’s biggest mantras are “speak for yourself,” “put the team first,” and “do your job.” He doesn’t harp on issues and he means what he says, and his guys respect him for it. As far as media is concerned, he’d say that only Michael Sam (if he chose) should be speaking on the subject. Belichick’s team would handle the issue on the first day and never deal with it again unless it absolutely had to be addressed.
John Harbaugh, the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, is more of a hands-on type of guy. Harbaugh always communicates to his guys that they should be themselves during the workweek. “No matter who you are, be that person,” he used to tell us. He stressed the importance of family and of bonding together for our common goal — winning. Harbaugh, like Belichick, wouldn’t let players talk negatively about Sam. He’d tell players to handle their problems in the locker room as a family would. If they had something to say, they should discuss it with each other, man to man, brother to brother, as a family. Harbaugh would tell us that if there were any issues among the team that we should hash it out in the locker room or a team meeting. If that failed, he’d tell us to come see him in his office or to go see general manager Ozzie Newsome, who has an open door policy and is always there for players to have an honest talk. Those guys would help players figure out their options or other ways to address whatever problems they had.
Those are separate ways to handle it, but they’re both effective because they both address the fundamental point: that this isn’t something that should distract players from doing the job they’re being paid to do. When you have strong leadership from your head coach and other players in the locker room, that’s an easy message to send. When you don’t, it means your problems are much bigger than a gay football player.
Because of my experiences there, I’d love to see Sam drafted by a team like New England or Baltimore. I could see him fitting easily in Indianapolis too, especially since the Colts could use a lineman like him. All of those coaches could handle situations like this one with no problem, because the good ones can always take anything that could be a “distraction” and turn it into something that only helps build success.
I’m excited that Michael Sam came out. It’s beyond courageous for him to do it before the draft because of the potential detriment to his draft stock, and he knows that. But even though there are some guys who won’t want a gay player on their team, I know that wherever Mike ends up, the majority of guys on his team will welcome and support him. Before the 2013 season, he came out to his teammates at Mizzou. With their support, he had 11.5 sacks in his final year as a Tiger, seven more than he notched in 2012. His team went 12-2, won the SEC’s West division, and won the Cotton Bowl. If Sam works hard at the next level, he’ll help his teammates do what every NFL player cares about most: win football games.
And while he’s helping his team win, hopefully he’ll also propel our society forward, making people realize that there’s no problem with having a gay player in the NFL, and no problem welcoming LGBT people anywhere else in our society.
Donte’ Stallworth played 10 seasons in the NFL for New Orleans, Philadelphia, New England, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Washington.