SANTA CLARA -- Before college football season began in August, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam told his teammates a secret: He’s gay.
The revelation caused such a tempest in the Tigers’ locker room that Missouri went 12-2, won the Southeastern Conference East championship, won the Cotton Bowl and finished the season No. 5 in the country.
And Sam? He was so ostracized and demoralized that he led the SEC in sacks with 11.5,had 19 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and was named the SEC’s co-Defensive Player of the Year. Teammates voted him Missouri’s MVP.
No, the Missouri locker room wasn’t entirely a utopia of acceptance and political correctness, but the fact the Tigers and Sam not only flourished in 2013 but, perhaps more amazingly, kept the secret in house shows gays playing sports is not quite the cataclysmic event we expect it to be.
That may be partly because being a gay football player is not as big a deal to college-age athletes as it is to the rest of the country, especially when that player excelled as Sam did.
“These players are part of a generation that says live and let live,” agent Leigh Steinberg said Monday. “(The generation) isn’t particularly excited about how someone else is living or what they’re doing. Football players are hyper-focused on winning. And here you have a player that’s already shown that he can fit into a team. His team knew he was gay, and when he got a sack, they were all jumping on his back, right?”
Eleven years ago, Steinberg represented a gay player, offensive tackle Kwame Harris, in the run-up to the draft. Steinberg didn’t know that at the time. Harris, drafted by the 49ers in the first round in 2003, didn’t come out publicly until last year, when a fight with an ex-boyfriend outside a Menlo Park restaurant landed him in court.
Even had he known, Steinberg would not have advised Harris to come out.
“I certainly would have recommended he keep closeted,” Steinberg said. “Because in the ’70s, when I started, you could probably have survived better being a communist than being gay in terms of public perception. But this subject has undergone a remarkable turnaround in a pretty short time.”
Steinberg thinks Sam will be a far bigger sensation with the media than with future teammates. But he believes Sam is the right athlete at the right time when it comes to homosexuality and the country’s most popular sport. He’s draft-worthy and starting his career, not ending it like the most recent pro athlete to come out, NBA center Jason Collins.
Sam already has navigated a college football locker room in the football-mad SEC, and he’s been through a tremendous amount already in his life. Three of Sam’s seven siblings died, one from a gunshot wound, and two older brothers are incarcerated.
“Telling the world I’m gay is nothing compared to that,” Sam told The New York Times.
So which team will draft an openly gay player?
The popular sentiment is that it will be a veteran-led team run by a confident, established head coach in a progressive city like Seattle or New York. The owners of the Patriots and Giants spoke in support of Sam on Monday. But so did the coach of a small, Midwest-market team, Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy, by basically summing up the NFL’s slogan: If you can play, you’re in.
“Any player who can come here and be a good teammate and follow the rules of our program – be respectful and produce on the football field – we have room for that guy,” McCarthy told the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
The 49ers also have a strong, established coach and reside in a progressive region of the country. The topic of gays in the locker room came crashing down on them last year just days before the Super Bowl, when cornerback Chris Culliver said he didn’t want a gay teammate.
Owner Jed York made it clear he was disappointed by the comments and hoped Culliver would become a “beacon” in education on gay issues.
But York and the other team owners are unlikely to meddle when it comes to draft-day decisions by their general managers.
They’re the ones who tally everything about a player – from size and speed to background and character – and assign a value. The rosy sentiments from NFL leaders are encouraging, but we truly won’t know just how accepting the league is until the draft in May.
The question until then is whether talent evaluators will view Sam’s revelation as something that denotes courage or something that will be an unwanted distraction.
They must ask themselves, “Will Michael Sam’s sexual orientation be a problem?”
It certainly did not seem to be one at the University of Missouri.
Read Matthew Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers and listen for his reports Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 1320.