If Missouri defensive end Michael Sam is drafted in May and becomes the NFL's first openly gay player, he'll walk into a league that seems to be moving closer to acceptance but is still dealing with growing pains as it does so.
ESPN.com's NFL Nation and ESPN The Magazine combined on an anonymous survey last week off the news of Sam coming out as the first openly gay NFL prospect. Fifty-one players, almost an entire team roster, responded to four true-false questions. Although the survey showed that most players aren't concerned with another's sexual orientation, it also made clear the concerns that players would have with learning how to relate to an openly gay teammate.
Forty-four players said a teammate's sexual orientation didn't matter to them, and 39 said they would be comfortable showering around a gay teammate. But 32 players said they had teammates or coaches who used homophobic slurs last season, and when asked whether an openly gay player would be comfortable in a NFL locker room, just 25 players said yes; 21 said no, while five declined to answer.
One concern for players appeared to be learning how they could relate to a teammate they knew was gay and whether they would need to behave any differently around him.
According to one starting receiver, "Whoever takes [Sam in the draft] should have an open talk at the beginning of camp, where everybody can ask what he's comfortable with, what offends him, what boundaries there should be. When it comes to race, people already know the boundaries, to a certain extent. But I don't think football players are overly familiar with what can and can't be said around a gay person."
Sam, who announced he is gay in a Feb. 9 interview with ESPN's "Outside the Lines," said his Missouri teammates rallied around him last season after he revealed his sexual orientation to them.
"I'm telling you what: I wouldn't have the strength to do this today if I didn't know how much support they'd given me this past semester," he said in the interview.
But one NFL starting tight end, who believes Sam will encounter some difficulties in the league, said, "There is a little more of a family environment in college. It was more like having brothers. In the NFL, you have friends, but it's a more work-oriented environment. I hope guys can be professional and respect who he is and leave his personal life out of it."
Sam, who was co-SEC defensive player of the year last season, is expected to be drafted between the third and fifth rounds in May. He had 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss in 2013, leading the SEC in both categories.