The devil is in the distractions.
That’s the lie that NFL decision-makers have perpetuated for decades, a catch-all excuse that’s as trusted as any prevent defense in football.
And it’s one we’re hearing from all corners of the league now — dark ones and enlightened others, progressive minds and prehistoric thinkers — as the first openly gay player has decided to pledge the fraternity.
Michael Sam, the Missouri All-America defensive end, went public with his private life Sunday in a proud, pre-emptive move. His coming-out party promises to break barriers and bash stereotypes, if all goes well.
But to hear some in the NFL talk, it also threatens to cause irreparable damage to whatever team dares to draft the reigning SEC defensive player of the year.
“The question you will ask yourself, knowing your team, is, ‘How will drafting him affect your locker room?’” one unnamed general manager told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King this week.
“And I am sorry to say where we are at this point in time, I think it’s going to affect most locker rooms. A lot of guys will be uncomfortable. Ten years from now, fine. But today, I think being openly gay is a factor in the locker room.”
Multiply that thinking by a factor of who knows how many, and you’ll begin to understand why this is even news in 2014. And believe me, I understand the fatigue that sets in quickly with a story like this, one that has everyone from Barack Obama (“Congratulations on leading the way,” the president tweeted Monday) to Bette Midler (“It takes real courage to come out of the shadows into the light”) chiming in.
Yet that only underscores Sam’s reasoning for coming out now rather than later. For one thing, he avoids the lame — but inevitable — accusations about him hiding his sexuality from prospective employers in the league, nondiscrimination laws be damned. For another, he gets most of the media circus out of the way before he ever sets foot in an NFL locker room, as a likely mid- to late-round pick — at 6-foot-1 and 250 pounds, Sam’s an undersized pass rusher — who’ll have to fight to earn a roster spot.
Code word 'distraction'
In the meantime, though, we’re left with this unsettled — and unsettling — debate about just how he’ll be received once he officially arrives. And that brings us to the league’s favorite buzzword.
“They think they can hide behind the word ‘distraction’ as kind of a code word,” former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe said in an interview with Fox Sports Radio on Monday.
Kluwe, whose own outspoken views — including supporting gay marriage — might have gotten him blackballed from the league last fall, compared it to the fallout after Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman frightened the masses with his on-field interview at the NFC championship game. And to Sherman’s assertions later about the four-letter word (“thug”) that some used to describe him.
“In this case,” Kluwe said, “the word ‘distraction’ is used by people who ... don’t want a gay player on their team, for whatever reason, but know they can’t come out and say that.”
So instead they use the D-word, among other euphemisms.
'Baggage' in locker room
“He’s bringing baggage into your locker room,” said former NFL coach Herm Edwards, now an ESPN analyst. “Can the players handle the media attention they are going to get, when they get the question asked, ‘Are you OK with a gay teammate?’ ”
OK, but if they can’t, well, let’s just say your locker room probably has other issues and deeper problems. Ditto the team whose personnel exec told SI that bringing in Sam would “chemically imbalance an NFL locker room.”
That’s laughable, of course, given all the truly unstable characters —some chemically enhanced, others simply morally bankrupt — the league chooses to employ.
And it’s worth noting those front-office executives were quoted anonymously, because, you know, it might create a distraction, right?
“I mean, if you look at the NFL,” Kluwe said, rattling off a list of high-profile “distractions” — Michael Vick, Aaron Hernandez, Riley Cooper, even Tim Tebow, albeit in a much different way. “Why is it all of a sudden that a gay player is going to be this huge distraction that brings the NFL to its knees? That’s ludicrous.”