Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Openly gay player's top NFL challenge

Teammates won't be his biggest problem

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The biggest obstacle in front of Michael Sam, the NFL prospect who recently and publicly announced he is gay, is probably not what you would expect.

In my estimation, for most players in the NFL, he will simply be another athlete with a different story to tell. For those players who will have a problem with him, by the time he arrives at the team facility for the first time, even the thickest of them will have learned of the consequences for intolerant opinions and insensitive comments.

The attitudes of select coaches, general managers and owners -- some of the most old-school, conservative people in the entire fold -- will not be the biggest limitation on his draft status or ascension through the ranks either.

No, the biggest hurdle Michael Sam will have to overcome is the media attention that will surround his every move going forward and the public appetite that fuels this attention.

To get an idea of the magnitude of the circus that will be obsessing on Sam, we need to look no further than former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow.

To be sure, Tebow is not a quarterback of first-string calibre in the NFL, but he is a player who has won more than he has lost as a starter (9-7 in 16 starts) and he's won a wildcard playoff.

While he does not have the throwing mechanics to supplant an NFL starter, there is absolutely no reason he shouldn't or couldn't be a second- or third-string QB in the NFL right now. He has the experience, he has the ability to change the dynamics in a game that needs to be shaken up, and he is a proven winner.

Ever heard of Brock Osweiler or Zac Dysert? Me neither. Those are the No. 2 and No. 3 pivots behind Peyton Manning. It might not have won the Broncos a Superbowl if Tebow was their No. 3 who was brought off the bench to soften up the Seahawks defence with some wildcat antics and a running emphasis when things were going horribly wrong, but you can't tell me Zac Dysert would have been a better option.

Tim Tebow is not in the NFL because all three quarterbacks on all 32 teams are better than him, have more potential than him or have more to offer. Tim Tebow is not in the NFL because no team wants the distraction and media frenzy that follows him wherever he goes.

It's not Tim's fault -- he can't help who he is and America's fascination with him -- but the spectacle and sideshow that is Tim Tebow is why he is currently unemployed, and that is nothing compared to the kind of attention Michael Sam is going to get, at least initially.

You can say it shouldn't be a story, that people should get over it and that "there is nothing to see here, folks" until you are blue in the face, but it won't matter. The NFL is the biggest, most profitable professional sporting mechanism in the world, and Michael Sam is the very first openly gay player hoping to compete in it.

He is a pioneer embarking on a voyage through a predominantly homophobic environment, and for the first little while, everything he does will be uncharted territory.

Whether Michael Sam likes it or not, whether his sexual preferences should even be more than a page 7 story or not, he is a distraction. Whichever team drafts him -- if he now even gets drafted -- the talk will not be centered around the football season to come. It will be focused on how Sam is embraced by his teammates, coaches, fans and opponents. And if there is one thing NFL coaches universally hate, it is attention and distraction that takes away from their sole focus of winning.

Michael Sam has proven in his collegiate career that not only is he talented enough to play at the next level, but his sexual preferences are not an issue or a stumbling block for him or his teammates in the NCAA. But this was before the media caught wind of this, a media that is fuelled by an American public that is still largely uncomfortable with the subject.

The size and extent of the spotlight put on Sam during his career in the NFL will likely determine the length of it.

 

Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays in the Free Press.

Twitter: @DougBrown97

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 18, 2014 C5

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