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Is the NFL ready for Michael Sam? It should be

Michael Sam’s homosexuality wasn’t an issue with his Missouri teammates, so why would it be in the NFL? (AP)

By Danny O’Neil

Michael Sam’s decision to be open about his sexual orientation is not an “issue.”

It is not a “distraction” nor is it a “concern.”

Sam’s sexuality is a fact that should be accepted immediately and without reservation for a player who is both eligible and eminently qualified for NFL employment.

That reality can get lost after a week in which so many have wondered if teams will be discouraged from choosing Sam based on the fear of impacting the delicate pH balance of their locker rooms either because of the presence of a gay man or the public furor and media scrutiny caused by the presence of that gay man.

Yep, that’s right. There’s a question of how this league – whose teams have employed drunk drivers, accused rapists and men convicted of manslaughter – will handle the “distraction” of an openly gay player.

Now, that is not to compare being gay to criminal activity. It’s to point out that there are players who have been convicted of crimes whose NFL employment has inspired less introspection and fewer questions than someone who is gay, which is a decidedly non-criminal and legally protected right.

It’s a right that no one has exercised. Not while in the NFL. Or in MLB. Or while playing in the NBA.

That makes Sam a pioneer of sorts, which has produced comparisons to Jackie Robinson. That’s intended to be a compliment, but it’s a poor parallel for about a thousand reasons, the principal one being that baseball was integrated at a time when American society was still segregated. Pro sports were ahead of society when Robinson broke the color barrier whereas men’s professional team sports today are among the last industries where sexual orientation could be considered a factor in employment.

It’s up to this league full of NFL players to act like grown-ups now and behave like the professionals they are. This is a league chock full of diversity in terms of class, race and creed. Adding someone as accomplished and proud as Sam is only going to further enrich this league while inevitably breaking down the stereotypes and misconceptions.

How will NFL players handle showering with an openly gay teammate? Probably the same way the Missouri Tigers did last season after Sam told his teammates he was gay in August and went on to be a leader on a team that only lost one game. His sexuality caused so little tension that it was not reported until Sam announced it himself nearly half a year after telling his college teammates.

Acceptance is a personal issue that every member of the locker room must answer for himself. Tolerance, however, is not. And a player doesn’t have to endorse a teammate’s lifestyle any more than he endorses his religious beliefs, but he does have to be willing to co-exist. Live and let live and all that.

The locker room is a workplace after all. An odd workplace to be certain, often profane and always competitive, but a workplace without room for discrimination.

I hope there is room Sam. I know there should be.