NFL Combine 2014: Michael Sam's presence will alter landscape
February 22, 2014 10:45 PM
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
Former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam speaks at a news conference at the NFL combine Saturday in Indianapolis.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
INDIANAPOLIS -- Earlier this month, NFL investigator Ted Wells detailed the dysfunction inside the Miami Dolphins' locker room. His 144-page report on the misconduct by players and staff members, which included bullying, racial insensitivity and inappropriate sexual misconduct, already has cost two Dolphins employees their jobs, and more fallout is likely.
Five days before the Wells report was made public, Missouri linebacker and NFL hopeful Michael Sam announced he was a homosexual, and, in effect, sent notice to NFL teams that they better be ready to welcome the first openly gay player into the league.
As barriers are broken and locker-room shenanigans revealed, NFL teams are working diligently to make sure they are prepared. Now more than ever, player conduct and tolerant work environments are being stressed by coaches as they strive to put together rosters in a changing world.
"What I try to remind our staff is this is somebody's son, and, if you have children and understand that, you do try to create that environment," Denver Broncos coach John Fox said. "It's a combative game, a tough game. There have been some correlations sometimes to the military. You are dealing with young people. You're trying to help them grow as people, as well as football players. That's the way I approach it. You always have to remind yourself you are dealing with people, and that's not easy. It's a challenge. You just do the best you can and take the most respectful approach."
The Dolphins fired offensive line coach Jim Turner and trainer Kevin O'Neill after they were implicated in some of the misconduct inside the Dolphins facility. For now, embattled Joe Philbin remains the head coach.
The Wells report, which chronicled in R-rated detail how Miami offensive lineman Richie Incognito and other players harassed fellow lineman Jonathan Martin and an assistant trainer, portrayed Philbin as a man unaware of the locker-room environment.
"I have to do a better job," Philbin said. "I'm going to look at every way, the way we educate, the way we communicate, the way we talk to one another. I'm going to look at every avenue. We have a lot of dedicated, committed people in our organization that make a lot of sacrifices every single day when they got to work. I have to make sure we create a better atmosphere and a better environment."
Sam, the co-defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, spoke with reporters Saturday at the combine. He came out to his Missouri teammates before the 2013 season and made his sexual orientation public three weeks ago.
"I wish you guys would just say, 'Michael Sam, how's football going? How's training going?' I would love for you to ask me that question. But it is what it is. And I just wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player."
NFL coaches hate distractions and Sam's presence, at least at the beginning, would bring unprecedented media attention. Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said Saturday the NFL is ready for an openly gay player and suggested the media will make more if it than necessary.
"This is something that's new to the league," Newsome said. "We all we have to adapt to it. I think our locker room has had the tendency to adapt to things a lot smoother than maybe the media does."
Several coaches this week said they did not foresee any problems with an openly gay player in the locker room.
"I think he'd be welcomed," New York Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "It'd be no different than any other player we have. One thing I know for sure, you're going to have 53 different players, and they're all different -- different religious beliefs, what they look like, height, weight, married, single, any of these.
"Everybody's different. But the main thing we talk about is respect in our locker room. And even though everybody's different, it's a respect thing. If the young man's a good football player and a good teammate, that's all we ask. So he'd fit in just like the rest of our guys."
There are varying opinions on whether Sam is an NFL-caliber player. Even though he was an effective player in the SEC, he has been labeled by some analysts as a tweener in the NFL -- not quite big enough to play defensive end and not quite athletic enough to play outside linebacker.
Some project Sam as a mid-round pick while others say he could go undrafted. The only thing that seems certain now is if a team decides to sign him, their staff and players will be navigating uncharted territory.
"You try to create [an environment] with respect and understanding," Fox said. "People come from all over the place. I don't care what kind of work you're in. We're just trying to evolve and get better as organizations, as people. I think that's a challenge to all of us."
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