Michael Sam’s announcement prompts NFL to examine what it considers a ‘distraction’

On Sunday, University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam was rated as the 90th-best prospect in May’s National Football League draft. The next morning, the 24-year-old all-American had slipped to No. 160.

Only one thing had changed: On Sunday night, Sam announced he is gay.

If he’s drafted, Sam would become the only openly gay active player in any of the four major professional sports.

Suddenly, NFL teams are weighing real questions about Sam’s size, speed and ability — and whether his skills will be enough to overshadow the almighty “distraction,” a catch-all term many teams use when addressing an issue, personality or incident they’d rather not deal with. In this case, teams will weigh whether Sam’s play merits the massive media attention and possible objections from teammates and others.

“There’s going to be a lot of questions,” said Gil Brandt, a former executive who’s now an NFL Network analyst. “. . . I would imagine that right now, everybody’s got their tapes from Missouri queued up, and they’re looking at [jersey] number 52.”

While many welcomed the news as a landmark in the world of professional sports — among those tweeting congratulations was President Obama — Sam’s announcement also was met with a good measure of public and private skepticism in the NFL community.

It suggested that although Americans are more accepting of gay rights, the nation’s favorite sport has been slow to shed its apprehension — an image some team leaders are trying to change.

“Regardless of who you are, what your background is and what your personal or sexual orientation is, if you can play, you can play,” New York Giants President John Mara said Monday in comments provided by the team. “Michael’s announcement will not affect his position on our draft board.”

The Giants could be in the minority. Two weeks ago, as Sam was among a group of players preparing for a pre-draft all-star game, the Senior Bowl, rumors circulated that there were red flags surrounding the Missouri defender.

“I think the way it was put was: ‘Sam may have some off-the-field problems,’ ” Brandt said. “Quite honestly, I didn’t know what that meant.”

Before Sunday’s announcement, the Southeastern Conference’s co-defensive player of the year was projected as a possible third-round pick; CBS Sports had rated him 90th, then No. 160 and later Monday moved him to No. 110.

But Peter King, who writes a popular NFL column for Sports Illustrated, quizzed several team officials about Sam on Sunday; one said his announcement wouldn’t matter, but another predicted Sam wouldn’t be drafted at all. Brandt, pointing to Sam’s undersize upper body and inexperience as a starter, predicted that Sam would be selected in the sixth round; the past seven SEC defensive players of the year have been taken in the first round.

Even if Sam possessed first-round talent, Brandt said, his announcement likely would’ve cost him selection in the first round.

Wade Davis, a former NFL defensive back who came out as gay after his career ended, was among a small group that prepped Sam this past weekend for Sunday’s announcement. Davis said by phone that Sam did not express concern that coming out would hinder his professional career.

“He wasn’t worried about it,” said Davis, who spent one season with the Washington Redskins and now is the executive director of You Can Play, an advocacy group that works for equality among gay and transgender athletes. “One thing that Michael told me: ‘Look, man, I can play.’ . . . Those guys [NFL players] only care about one thing: Can you help us win?”

Keeping a secret

Sam, who came out to his college team before the 2013 season, led Missouri to the SEC East championship and a 12-2 record. He tallied 111 / 2 sacks and 19 tackles for losses. Despite his strong season and the Tigers’ surprising run, Sam rarely spoke with reporters; his teammates, meanwhile, kept his secret.

“I never had a problem with my teammates,” Sam was quoted as saying in the New York Times, which along with ESPN was the platform for his revelation. “Some of my coaches were worried, but there was never an issue.”

Still, a handful of NFL players have expressed reluctance at playing alongside a gay teammate. Patrick Crayton, a veteran wide receiver who spent the 2013 preseason with the New Orleans Saints, tweeted Sunday night that Sam should “stay in the closet.” Jonathan Vilma, a Saints linebacker, said during an NFL Network interview last week that he had concerns about showering and dressing with a gay teammate nearby.

Doug Williams, himself a social pioneer as the first black quarterback to win the Super Bowl, said Monday that Sam’s on-field ability should overshadow any preconceptions in the locker room.

“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,’ ” said Williams, who on Monday joined the Redskins in a front-office position.

Davis, the equality advocate, said Sam expects to be hazed, a rite of passage endured by many NFL rookies, particularly those with a high national profile.

Davis said Sam told him last weekend that, if a teammate asks about Sam’s sexuality, he would discuss it openly. And the first step toward earning his teammates’ trust, Davis said, would be in keeping locker-room conversations — and potentially insensitive language — private. A similar approach could be seen as Sam’s first NFL test: At the NFL combine, a talent evaluation event held in late February, team officials surely will ask him questions about his sexuality, a topic officially off-limits, and keeping those questions confidential could earn him points in the close-to-the-vest NFL.

“The thing he knows is that, ‘Hey, I’m not looking to run to the media and tell them this guy asked me this question,’ ” Davis said. “He understands the importance of that. He knows he has to not only protect himself but the brand, and if he wants to be a part of that brand, he’s got to look out for that.”

The aftermath

After the draft, it’ll be up to Sam’s new team to manage what follows. Last year, the San Diego Chargers drafted Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o in the second round, months after it was revealed that Te’o had been tricked into carrying on an online romantic relationship with a woman who didn’t actually exist. Before the draft, Chargers officials met to discuss a media strategy; they would limit exposure to reporters and allow no one-on-one interviews.

After the draft, the team maintained its plan, and with Te’o willing to address questions head-on, a previously dominant story line dissolved after a few months.

Davis said Sam seemed ready to answer all questions without reservation, too. That began Sunday, when he stepped in front of the rumors circulating at the Senior Bowl and, rather than face relentless questions about his “off-the-field problems,” as it had been put to Brandt, Sam provided his own answers.

“I think he did the right thing,” Brandt said. “Because they would ask him about it, and then if he didn’t admit it and lied, it would hurt him more. This way, it’s out there.”

Now, Davis said, he can prepare answers for a more pressing topic: Whether he belongs in an NFL team’s lineup.

“He’s such a football guy,” Davis said, “that that’s all he wants to talk about: ‘Hey, I just want to play football. Can you line up a guy in front of me who can stop me?’ ”

Mike Jones contributed to this report.

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