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, Buffalo coach Marv Levy, and Giants linebacker Harry Carson, who appeared along with nearly 100 other inductees at a two-day “Fan Fest,” the largest gathering ever of football legends outside Canton, Ohio.
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. In the macho arena that is pro football, Sam may have been an outcast in previous generations.
“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.
“Diversity has become a critical topic, people are talking about it all the time and I think the world is different. Remember Magic Johnson with AIDS? It starts with education. He’ll be judged on football.”
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.
“It never really swayed anyone’s opinion of him,” Carson said. “But it’s something he lived with and he didn’t have to by himself because he had teammates, and the teammates he had were guys who supported him. Even though he never said anything, we’re a team and guys on the team who are unselfish are going to support their teammates regardless of how they choose to live their lives.”
Simmons, the first player to acknowledge he was HIV positive, died early this year. He was 57.
It’s possible there will be some awkwardness for Sam in the locker room, where he could be subjected to jokes and playful ribbing. Sanders believes those days are long gone.
“Guys are more forward thinking than you think,” he said. “It helps that he’s a big guy. No one will mess with him.”
The 6-foot-2, 261-pound Sam has been projected to be drafted from the third round on. Sam didn’t perform well on the field at the scouting combine, where he calmly handled tough questions about his decision to “come out.”
Levy, who led the Bills to four straight Super Bowls, said his criteria before deciding to draft Sam would be pretty simple.
“Is he the best guy at his position when we’re on the board, and do we need a guy at that position?” the 89-year-old Levy said. “If so, I’ll take him. I’d like to know his character qualities and other things, but that would not factor into my decision.”
If he were coaching a team that selected Sam, Levy said he would not feel any need to address his players. That may not have been the case 10 or 20 years ago.
“I wouldn’t make an issue of it,” Levy said. “I think society has adjusted to the point where it’s an acceptable thing and why make an issue of it? That would be my approach. Things change, plus I’ve got to worry about how to pick up the blitz.”