The NFL’s annual pre-draft Scouting Combine starts Thursday in Indianapolis, and while big names like Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney will draw plenty of attention, perhaps no player will have brighter lights on his performance than University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam. Sam, who enters the NFL Draft as a prospect at both end and outside linebacker, came out as gay on February 9, giving him the chance to become the NFL’s first openly gay player if he makes a team next fall.
The reining Southeastern Conference co-defensive player of the year is currently projected in the middle rounds, and he’s a classic “tweener” prospect. He’s slightly undersized for a prototypical NFL defensive end, and teams have questions about whether he has the speed to play outside linebacker at the next level. After a middling performance at the Senior Bowl in January, how Sam performs at the Combine could have a major impact on his draft stock come May.
Fair or not, Sam’s combine performance may be even more important because he came out. The day he told the world he is gay, Sports Illustrated quoted anonymous NFL insiders saying that his sexuality would impact his draft status. While some of the claims those insiders made are ridiculous — especially given the support Sam has received from the NFL front office, many players, and the NFL Players Association — there are people in the league who remain fearful of an openly gay player, whether because of the media attention it might draw or because of outright homophobia. This is the league, after all, in which multiple teams reportedly asked prospects if they “like girls” at last year’s combine.
With that in mind, we compiled the public statements NFL teams issued regarding Sam’s sexuality. Many teams, coaches, and executives reacted immediately with public statements. We emailed those that had not, asking if Sam’s sexuality would affect how they evaluated his draft status. Thus far, every team that has spoken publicly has offered support for Sam. Six teams — Seattle, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Carolina, Kansas City, and Jacksonville — have not offered specific comments on Sam (see updates: Jacksonville and Carolina have commented since original publication). In those instances, we included comments from players on the team. As more teams go on the record, we will update this post.
The NFL: “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”
New England Patriots
Owner Robert Kraft, via the Boston Herald:
“We’re about winning. And anyone who can come in here and help us win, I personally don’t care what their ethnic background is, their racial background, the gender preference. If they can help us win, and they’re about team first, then I’m happy to have him here.”
New York Jets
Head coach Rex Ryan, via the Huffington Post after Jason Collins’ announcement last spring. The organization said in an email to ThinkProgress that this remains the its position:
“As far as I’m concerned, if a guy’s a good teammate and he can help you win, I’d be open to anybody.”
Owner Stephen Ross (statement):
“Michael Sam’s announcement is a significant step in sports and I respect the choice that he made publicly. His announcement will have no bearing either way on our evaluation of him as a player. Dennis Hickey, Joe Philbin and I all agree on the same thing; we’ll draft the best players that can help us win football games, have high character and contribute to the community. If he is a member of our organization, Michael will be welcomed here with open arms as part of our family.”
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, via Nashville, Tenn. 104.5 The Zone
“I think you make as little deal about it as necessary. There’s a lot of different people in that locker room, and we’re not just talking about sexual orientation. We’re talking about different personalities, different ages, different likes, dislikes, everything else.”
“The Bengals are about winning football games, and we are a welcoming workplace that supports the concept of the NFL as a football meritocracy. Purely personal factors will not affect the prospects here for someone who shows ability, determination and a commitment to be a good teammate in the club environment.”
General manager Kevin Colbert (statement):
“We do not discriminate against any players based on their sexual orientation.”
Team president Dick Cass, via BaltimoreRavens.com:
“I don’t think his being gay would be an issue at all for the Ravens. We’re all about winning. If he’s a good football player who can help us win games, he will be welcomed here.”
Owner Jimmy Haslam (statement):
“Absolutely we would welcome Michael Sam to the Cleveland Browns organization if he can help us win games and he’s the right football player for this team. We are intent on creating an environment that is supportive, accepting and respectful of individual rights and differences.”
General manager Ryan Grigson, via the Indianapolis Star:
“[Sam's announcement] doesn’t impact our evaluation. We will go about our process as usual.”
General manager Ruston Webster, via the Tennessean:
“He’s like any other player in the draft. Our guys go out and grade players from an athletic standpoint — talent, height, weight, speed, those factors. We give everybody a grade, and that’s where they go on our board.”
The team has not commented. (See update)
Offensive lineman Uche Nwaneri, via ESPN.com:
“I would welcome a gay teammate same as any other. Something about team sports really transcends color and orientation. In between the lines it’s all football. Purest form of it. I don’t know how it will play out in specific locker rooms around the league, but I know that as adults and professionals the only thing that should matter is the game and the team.”
UPDATE: Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell, on February 20: “Not even worried about that at all. We’re very protective of our culture and there’s no reason he wouldn’t fit into our culture. … I think 18 years I’ve been in the NFL and sexual orientation has never come up once in discussing a player. I don’t think it should ever come up to be honest with you.”
Executive vice president of football operations and general manager Rick Smith, via the Houston Chronicle:
“My practice leading up to the draft is to keep my thoughts and opinions of all the prospects confidential, but I do applaud the young man’s courage to live in authenticity and stand in his truth.”
General manager and executive vice president John Elway, via ESPN.com:
“I applaud Michael Sam and wish him the very best as he continues the pursuit of his NFL dream.
As we look toward the combine and draft, we will evaluate Michael just like any other draft prospect — on the basis of his ability, character and NFL potential. His announcement will have no effect on how we see him as a football player. Having spent 16 years in an NFL locker room (as a player), the bottom line is that it’s about treating others with respect and earning that respect. By all indications, it appears Michael has done just that throughout his football career.”
Kansas City Chiefs
The team has not commented.
Backup quarterback Chase Daniel, who left the University of Missouri a year before Sam arrived:
Had multiple convos with @MikeSamFootball this year, amazed at his honesty & courage! Once a tiger, ALWAYS a Tiger!
— Chase Daniel (@ChaseDaniel) February 10, 2014
San Diego Chargers
General manager Tom Telesco declined to comment specifically on Sam, but he did compare the situation to the team’s evaluation (and eventual selection) of linebacker Manti Te’o, who entered the 2013 Combine amid controversy about a fake girlfriend and rumors about his sexuality:
“Believe it or not, we do the same process on everybody. So with [Te'o], we just did a lot of homework on him. That’s what our scouts do. They try and put that puzzle together on their own as far as talking to a lot of different sources and talking to people they know. We have to get to know the player as a person, as well as a player. So, you have to go through that process.”
Quarterback Philip Rivers, in an interview with ESPN:
“The NFL is a performance-based business. And if you can play football at a high level, then you’ll be on a team. If he fits the mold of an NFL player — linebacker, pass-rusher or whatever he is — then he’ll be on a team somewhere.
As far as the Chargers go, I know [general manager Tom Telesco] and Coach [Mike] McCoy — those guys spend a great deal of time evaluating and trying to find guys to help us win a championship. And if they think he’s one of those guys that fits the mold that will help us win a championship, and he’s a part of our team, then he’ll be a part of our team. If he can help us win, then we want him to help us win.”
Sam’s agent said he thinks San Diego would be a “great fit.”
General manager Reggie McKenzie (statement):
“The Oakland Raiders have long championed diversity and opportunity. The organization will evaluate Michael Sam based purely on his ability as a football player.”
Anonymous team spokesman, via Philly.com:
“Why would it change anything?”
Executive vice president Stephen Jones, asked if the team is open to drafting Sam:
New York Giants
Co-owner Steve Tisch (statement):
“Michael Sam is a gifted athlete and a courageous man. I hope any NFL team would not hesitate to draft Michael if he is right for their team.”
Co-owner John Mara (statement):
“Our sport, our game , is the ultimate meritocracy. You earn your way with your ability. As Patrick Burke and Wade Davis constantly remind all of us, regardless of who you are, what your background is and what your personal or sexual orientation is, if you can play, you can play. Michael’s announcement will not affect his position on our draft board.”
Washington’s football team
Personnel executive Doug Williams, via the Washington Post:
“At the NFL level, the bottom line is where does he rate as a player with the team that’s going to end up drafting him? That’s the bottom line and how we have to look at it. It was like I told someone earlier, Russell Wilson won the Super Bowl and nobody talked about him being black. I think eventually, we have to get to that point when we talk about people’s sexuality and get to that point where you say, ‘Hey, that’s their preference, but if he’s a good football player, and if he can help us win, he can be on my team.’ ”
Green Bay Packers
Head coach Mike McCarthy, via the Green Bay Press-Gazette:
“I think you definitely have to feel he’s a courageous young man but my understanding is he’s a talented young player. We always from Day 1 talked about our program, about our culture. Ted is going through the draft process right now and at the end of the day it comes down to good football players. Any player who can come here and be a good teammate and follow the rules of our program, which is one be respectful and produce on the football field, we have room for that guy.”
General manager Phil Emery (team statement):
“Michael stated with great poise and confidence who he is as a person and football player and I have tremendous respect for him in the way he conveyed his thoughts and the courage it took to state them publicly.
Each and every player in the NFL is a unique individual, as we all are in life. We all ultimately gain respect in our jobs by how well we perform at our chosen profession and if the level in which we perform adds positively to the collective goal of success.
Michael stated this and I agree with his thoughts. It is about his skill set as a football player to add positively to a team’s goals and that’s how he will be evaluated.”
President Tom Lewand (statement):
“As an organization and football team, the Detroit Lions place the highest priority on inclusiveness and diversity. We applaud Michael Sam for his courage and proactive approach, and we will evaluate him, like every player, based solely on his ability to help the Lions win football games.”
Owner Zygi Wilf (statement):
“We commend Michael Sam for being very courageous with his openness on something of such a personal nature. His comments will have no impact on how the Vikings view Michael as a football player or as a person. If a player can help us win, we will warmly welcome him as part of the team and provide an accepting, respectful and supportive environment to help him succeed in the NFL.”
The team has not commented. (See update)
Quarterback Cam Newton, in an ESPN.com interview alongside San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick:
“His job is a linebacker. Colin said it best when he said we don’t worry about each other when we’re outside of football. Of course we have, ‘Are you OK? ‘Is there anything I can help you with?’ But the main focus is, we’re football players. We’re here in this organization for one reason and one reason only. And if you’re able to help us attain that winning success, your personal life is your personal life.”
UPDATE: Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman, on February 20: “The bottom line is we’re going to evaluate Michael as a football player. And if he’s on the board when it’s our turn to pick, and he’s the highest-rated guy on our board, we’ll take him.”
New Orleans Saints
The team has not commented, but several mock drafts project New Orleans will draft Sam. Sam’s agent told the Houston Press that the Saints have expressed interest in drafting him.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff, via Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
“If we deem Michael Sam as being an ideal fit for us as football player … and having upside to play in this league, we would consider the acquisition. But that’s what I would say about any player in this year’s draft.”
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The team has not commented.
Tight end Tom Crabtree:
Good for Michael Sam. Takes courage for where he is in his career and where we are as a league. I applaud him.
— Tom Crabtree (@itsCrab) February 10, 2014
The team has not commented.
Linebacker and Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith, the day Sam came out:
There is no room for bigotry in American sports. It takes courage to change the culture.
— Malcolm Smith (@MalcSmitty) February 10, 2014
UPDATE: Quarterback Russell Wilson, on February 25: “When I step into the huddle for the Seattle Seahawks on game day, I’m not worried if a guy’s white, black, if he’s Christian or Jewish, or whatever the situation is — where he came from. The only thing we’re focused on is winning football games.”
“And as long as that guy is doing everything he can on the field, in terms of just getting ready to play the game and just showing out come game day, that’s all we care about at the end of the day. That’s the thing that, especially for the Seattle Seahawks, that we do.”
San Francisco 49ers
General manager Trent Baalke (statement):
“The 49ers commend Michael for the courage he has displayed as he continues to pursue his NFL career. We have and will continue to evaluate him as we do every eligible player, which is always based on their projected contribution to our team on and off the field.”
Team spokesperson Mark Dalton, in an email to ThinkProgress:
“Our team’s position is identical to that expressed by the league in its statement Sunday.”
St. Louis Rams
Executive vice President of football operations and chief operating officer Kevin Demoff, via St. Louis 101ESPN
“I don’t think there is a need to make a statement. Michael Sam is a prospect who should be judged by what he did on the field. Obviously here in Missouri, our fans and Mizzou fans know about the impact he had for the Tigers. I would say rather than worrying about what the NFL will handle or not, look at what happened at Missouri—tremendous leader for his team, talked with his teammates in the summer, nothing got out, and not only did he have his best season, Mizzou had one of the best seasons in school history.”