Players weigh in on Michael Sam's future in the NFL
Bart Scott's NFL career spanned 11 seasons, two organizations and 172 games. He spent countless days in training camp, numerous hours in meetings and endless swaths of time in locker rooms.
Scott's journey through the NFL from 2002-12 with the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets also gives him a pulse on how players might react to an openly gay teammate. And with the news Sunday night that former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam is set to become the first openly gay player in the NFL, Scott offered a pragmatic perspective.
"I think [his teammates] would respond with an open mind, try and get to know the guy," Scott said. "People give football a bad rap, but if you look at the history of the sports, they've always been on the cusp of social issues. Football forces you to get to know the person and what they represent."
Initial reaction to the story, at least publicly, has revealed a gap between the opinions of NFL executives and players. Judging from the reaction on Twitter and in SI.com's interviews with multiple players, there already exists a stream of support for Sam.
"I guarantee you almost every NFL player has a gay friend or a gay relative or knows someone in their circle who is gay," Scott said. "My wife's stylist is gay. I love that dude. It's whatever you like. Most athletes don't care who you're having sex with. They only care, can you help me win?"
NFL executives tend to be risk-averse to the extreme, which could ultimately prompt some to pass on Sam to avoid a constant media circus. In stories published by SI.com and The MMQB, NFL personnel members were nearly unanimous in voicing that Sam's announcement will likely hurt his draft position.
Still, as much as NFL executives may be cautious, they are also results driven. To that end, players say Sam's on-field production should ultimately determine how he is perceived.
"There are gay players in the NFL who have not come out," said former NFL tight end Anthony Becht, who played for five organizations over an 11-year career. "What [Sam] did is courageous. But is there going to be scrutiny and guys that don't like it? Sure. Look, everyone isn't going to accept everything, and not everyone is going to agree with it. If he can play football, he will be embraced and accepted."
Based on the reaction on Twitter, that seems to be the case. Everyone from Deion Sanders -- "Let's show him love like a family member" -- to Jonathan Martin -- "Hats off to you Michael Sam, that takes some guts" -- praised Sam.
While there's no precedent to Sam's situation as an openly gay player preparing for the NFL draft, Scott brought up the curious case of former NFL safety Kerry Rhodes. After pictures of Rhodes and his male assistant surfaced online last year, Rhodes issued a statement to TMZ denying that he is gay. "I am not gay," Rhodes told TMZ. "The shots were taken during a past vacation in a casual environment with my entire business team."
Despite a productive eight-year NFL career, Rhodes' options in the NFL have reportedly dried up. (According to Pro Football Talk last year, Rhodes hadn't retired. But he also did not play last season.)
"If he wanted to play, nobody in this league could tell me he wasn't worth a shot at their roster," said Scott, a teammate of Rhodes with the Jets in 2009. "He's super athletic, 6-3. He's basically Kam Chancellor but can cover better."
There's a general sense among players that locker rooms have evolved toward acceptance. Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin, who last played in the NFL in 2005, said a lot has changed since his rookie season in 1995.
"Things have come a lot further than what they were when I first entered the NFL," Martin said. "It's hard to say because I haven't had any experience, [and] there hasn't been any cases other than just recently. I just think it's received better than it would have been back then."
Scott predicted that some players might poke fun at Sam, but he noted that such ribbing would not be rooted in bigotry. He described an NFL locker room culture in which ribbing is commonplace.
"This kid coming out, I don't think it will be an issue," Scott said. "He may be teased about it, but it won't be because [players are] homophobic. They're going to make fun of whatever they can, but it's not because they hate you. It's because it's the joke."
The intricate locker room dynamic may be the hardest thing to predict, particularly after the situation earlier this year involving the Miami Dolphins, Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin and bullying. However, it's important to keep in mind that Sam came out to his Missouri teammates last summer to widespread support.
Players mentioned a few factors could come into play, including the potential for incessant media questions about Sam. Since Sam's story transcends football, there will be more than just beat writers and local television crews following the team. There will be national writers and reporters from platforms that typically have little or nothing to do with sports.
"There's going to be an early earthquake that comes with it initially," Becht said. "I don't know if it will be as big an issue people will make it out to be."
Scott lived through the Tim Tebow saga with Jets in 2012, and he recalled a never-ending drumbeat of questions about whether Tebow would start, play or change positions -- or whether he could even play quarterback in the NFL. Scott doesn't foresee the focus on Sam lasting quite as long.
"This isn't like Tebow where it's an everyday thing," Scott said. "This will go away; it won't be an ongoing circus. If Tebow was starting, the circus would have left."
Scott did add that it's inevitable a teammate or opponent will say something foolish about Sam, which will blow up into a national story.
"Everything you have in society you have in the football locker room," Scott said. "There will be guys that say something stupid. Same people that may say something stupid about a black player or the Jonathan Martin situation."
How Sam is received in an NFL locker room remains to be seen. But public reaction on Sunday -- around Columbia and across the nation -- was overwhelmingly supportive.
"I want to praise him for having the character and courage to share a piece of himself," said former Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov, who is also preparing for the 2014 NFL draft. "People also need to remember, this doesn't define who he is as an individual. We're all more than just our sexual orientation. As an athlete, I support him sharing this part of himself."