University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam's public declaration Sunday that he is gay is without question an act of leadership. It took the kind of courage, moxie and confidence that few 22-year-olds possess to discuss his sexual orientation just days before the NFL scouting combine. If Sam gets a job on a professional football team, he will become the first openly gay player to play in the NFL.
But to reach that milestone, Sam will depend on the leadership of many others. Not just a team owner or general manager willing to make a bet on hiring Sam, but a head coach with a strong enough grip on the team to manage the player dynamics, the media spotlight and the constant scrutiny such a hire is sure to bring.
As much as society might increasingly shrug off news about sexual orientation, the attitudes in the NFL haven't necessarily caught up with the times, which makes taking a bet on Sam a pioneering move. Some players still express reservations about having a gay teammate in the locker room. Some general managers say it will make players uncomfortable. And other team officials warn the league's culture just isn't ready for it. "To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace," one NFL personnel assistant told Sports Illustrated. "It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."
Still, it's not hard to see how many officials would be willing to look beyond those supposed risks. Sam is a great player, for one, even if some argue about his stats. As the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year in what is widely regarded as college football's toughest conference, Sam led the SEC in sacks and tackles for loss. Plus, he would offer any team extra publicity and the potential for great PR with an image as an open-minded, progressive franchise.
But whoever hires Sam will also inherit a media circus and a team dynamic that is constantly under the klieg lights. Managing that will take a strong leader who has the unquestioned respect of the team's players. One general manager interviewed by MMQB.com's Peter King perhaps said it best: "I could see [New England Patriots head coach Bill] Belichick say, ‘This is the way it is. There’s no story.’ And guys would just accept him. There’d be no choice. But without that strong leadership, I could see it being divisive."
It will take a coaching and front-office staff willing to say no. The media attention will be relentless, and finding a way to protect Sam, a rookie — as well as the locker room and the coaching staff — from all the distraction will be a colossal task. Whatever feel-good or image-building benefit Sam's story may have for the franchise, the potential for it to become a problem is much, much higher.
Finally, it will also take a leader with an acute awareness of the maturity of his team and their ability to embrace differences. The overall team may seem ready to accept an openly gay player, but just a couple of strong personalities within the locker room could upend Sam's chances for success if there aren't strong leaders among the players who support him. Drafting Michael Sam is one thing. Being able to make such a trailblazing figure successful is quite another.