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Media scrutiny may be another hurdle for Michael Sam

Michael Sam’s press conference drew the largest crowd of media members at the scouting combine. (AP)

By Danny O’Neil

INDIANPOLIS – Michael Sam did not become a gay football player earlier this month.

He became known as a gay football player, and the fact he played last season after telling his Missouri teammates he is gay is worth remembering as everyone wonders how he will be accepted within an NFL locker room.

Because he has already been accepted in what turned out to be a remarkably successful season for the Tigers, who lost only one game with Sam being named the co-Defensive Player of the Year in the SEC, which is only considered the country’s top conference.

The difference next season? It won’t be just Sam’s teammates who know he’s gay. And that fact – more than Sam’s sexual orientation – is the biggest variable, according to one of the league’s top personnel evaluators.

“He has been a good player,” said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens’ general manager. “He has been in a locker room. It’s what you – the media – what are you all going to do with it.

“Once he gets in and he can rush the quarterback and he can get the quarterback on the ground and make tackles, he’s going to be a good teammate. But the biggest thing is how the media is going to deal with it.”

The results Saturday weren’t all that encouraging in that regard during a 15-minute interview that drew the kind of crowd usually reserved for top quarterbacks or linebackers with imaginary girlfriends.

The attention was not a surprise. The mid-round prospect has become a de facto pioneer after he came out earlier this month in interviews with The New York Times and ESPN. Saturday’s interview at the scouting combine was his first full-fledged press conference, and it attracted the largest crowd at an event with more than 900 credentialed media members.

The questions Sam was asked proved to be more telling than his answers, the interview making it clear just how awkward his introduction to the NFL will be. Not for Sam, mind you. He was incredibly composed, occasionally humorous and unbelievably gracious considering some of the questions he was asked, which merited cringes more than responses.

Like this one: “When you told your team about your sexuality, were there jokes about it? Did you tell them, ‘I can take jokes?’ And if so, how did it go?”

Seriously. That was the question transcribed verbatim. In a best-case scenario, it was an attempt to determine whether Sam would insist on inoffensive language within the locker room. At worst, the question sought to determine whether he would be OK with hearing homophobic jokes or being slurred.

Sam’s response: “Everyone could be normal around me. If they wanted to, we’d joke because that’s a brotherhood, that’s a family. We don’t draw blood, it’s all fun and games.”

“I wish you would just see me as Michael Sam the football player,” Sam said. (AP)

The line of questioning didn’t improve from there, as he was asked, “If you encounter harassment or hostility in the locker room, do you have a strategy for that? Are you going to fight?”

Even Sam balked at that one.

“Am I going to fight?” he said. “No. If someone calls me a name, I will have a conversation with that guy and hopefully it won’t lead to nothing else.”

He is banking on the ability of fellow NFL players to behave like adults. The same should be expected of the media.

Dumb questions aren’t going to stifle his career. Neither are 15-minute press conferences. But the size and nature of the media coverage of Sam’s career – something which he no longer can control – can make teams reluctant to draft him or future teammates resentful.

It amounts to a second hurdle Sam may face. Not only is there the possibility that anti-gay sentiments will impact his career in a league that has never had an active player who is openly gay, but there’s also the possibility that the attention and scrutiny now being trained on him will turn teams off.

Having a gay teammate may not be a distraction, but being repeatedly asked about having a gay teammate could be. That’s just the beginning, though. We’re talking about sexuality here, which means there’s a whole tier of sensational approaches journalists could take.

Will reporters go to each member of his new team and ask about showering with a gay teammate? If so, why?

That’s not a rhetorical question. Why ask about showering? Is it really about making sure Sam doesn’t face discrimination? Is it truly an attempt to expose homophobia? Or is it about trying to ask the most pointed question in the effort to get the most salacious response that will in turn draw the most attention?

Why was Sam asked Saturday – as he was – whether he thought teams might feel more obligated to prove they weren’t prejudiced? It wasn’t quite asking Sam if his decision to come out was done with an eye toward improving his professional prospects, but it wasn’t all that far off, either.

Sam simply pointed out he could not answer that question.

“I am not a GM,” he said. “I do not have control over my draft status. All I can control is me, preparing myself to get the best scores out there.”

The story is out of Sam’s hands now, not just in terms of where he gets picked in the draft, but how he is covered.

I don’t have all the answers for how to cover this story. Reporters do have a responsibility to see if Sam’s career is impacted by his decision not to hide his sexual orientation. On the other hand, there’s also a possibility the coverage of Sam’s integration into the NFL could become something that actually negatively impacts his integration into the NFL.

In a league in which teams routinely seek to avoid any extra attention, it’s not hard to imagine a team choosing a player roughly as talented as Sam ahead of him because it would avoid the added scrutiny that was on display Saturday.

That would be sad not just because journalists aren’t supposed to be part of the story, but because this is ultimately about Michael Sam and what he’s trying to achieve.

He wants to be a pro football player. He has made that clear. The question now isn’t only whether one of the NFL’s 32 teams will let him, but if the people covering the country’s most popular sport can, too.

“I wish you would just see me as Michael Sam the football player,” he said, “instead of Michael Sam, the gay football player.”