Gene Collier: NFL trying to find right words in dealing with Sam situation

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As the answer to about 50 potential questions asked 50 different ways, the Steelers on Monday offered only a minimalist’s one-size-fits-all policy statement from general manager Kevin Colbert:

“We do not discriminate against any players based on their sexual orientation.”

Anyone still wondering whether the NFL is looking forward to welcoming and supporting its first openly gay player should probably refer to the relevant correspondence from Park Avenue, coming as it did within the last 48 hours:

“We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”

It’s clear and it’s obviously official, but it’s not only that; it’s the law.

The NFL has no franchise in Nigeria, where the penalty for gay sex is death by stoning. It has no franchise in Russia, where the law against “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” includes a quantum of tolerance only during months when a $50 billion Olympic investment is at stake. For the foreseeable future (though this, too, will change), the NFL only has franchises in the United States of America, where just hours after Missouri defensive end Michael Sam became the first self-declared gay athlete eligible for the NFL draft, the Department of Justice announced a sweeping expansion of government support for the rights of same-sex couples.

But it was Sam’s announcement, not expanding social policy, that sent Barack Obama and Michelle Obama to Twitter in twins bursts of support:

“Couldn’t be prouder of your courage both on and off the field,” said the first lady. “Congratulations on leading the way; that’s real sportsmanship,” gushed the president.

Yep, everybody’s officially ready for an historic cultural moment that will one day cast Michael Sam’s story into the same sentence as Jackie Robinson’s. No day like today.

So how come when Sam was making his announcement, the projected fourth-round draft pick became a projected fifth-round draft pick almost before the end of his first sentence? By the next morning, most NFL general managers generally managed to indicate (anonymously of course) that Sam’s draft status would fall precipitously now that he could prove to be a distraction to the team that selected him. Some of those comments looked strangely like they had originated in Moscow or Lagos.

Sam might have a “character” issue, went one opinion, and another held that his presence would “chemically imbalance” the locker room.

Officially, politically, and in most cases even spiritually, the NFL is ready to jump on the right side of history, but practically, near the interpersonal precision that rocks on the fulcrum between winning and losing, the league is not quite so ready.

It would not surprise me at all, in fact, if Sam went undrafted because of this. In a sport that loathes distractions that are barely perceptible, he’s a distraction of perhaps unprecedented dimensions. (Currently, of course, there are no distractions. No one ever gets arrested, shoots anybody, shoots himself, sends out a racist or homophobic tweet, bullies a teammate right out of the locker room, nothing like that.)

Sam virtually guarantees a full season of overheated media attention, beginning this month at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, which just filled a couple hundred extra hotel rooms. The draft itself, already a three-ring circus, just added a fourth.

A team that endures all of that for a player who had never projected much beyond a fourth-rounder, undersized at that, then must go carefully about the business of finding Sam some comfort in a locker room not necessarily swimming with social progressives.

There are plenty of places in the modern NFL that could handle that, although I’m not sure they constitute the majority of franchises. It’s not a stretch at all to say the best possible place for a first-team All-American and the Southeast Conference defensive player of the year is Pittsburgh, especially a defensive player who needs all the moral support management can deliver.

Dan Rooney wouldn’t shrink from this for a second, as I believe his most recent job was with the Obama administration, where the position on gay rights is pretty clear. Nor would Art Rooney or Kevin Colbert or Mike Tomlin decline this challenge, all of them having long since demonstrated a relationship with the players that should preclude any debilitating friction.

For them it’s not whether Sam is gay, it’s “Can Sam play?”

That answer is elusive.

He certainly couldn’t play one of the end spots in this defense at 255 pounds. The defensive ends on the Steelers roster average 296 pounds. If he projects onto Tomlin’s depth chart at all, it would be at linebacker, but no one is gushing right now about his potential in pass coverage. He’s strictly a pass rusher, or so go the indications, so it’s probably a matter of how many special teams seasons you are willing to invest in the Michael Sam Project, along with everything else.

Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Indianapolis are some other places that could provide both the leadership and opportunity for the Sam story to blossom. It’s a story still being written, a story that should not be abridged because the league and its teams fail to show that their humanity has risen to the level of their official positions.

Gene Collier:


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