If you want to understand the NFL world Michael Sam is entering, and the difficulty a gay man faces in a testosterone-filled universe of violence, uber-men and grand machismo, look no further than Sam's old Missouri team.
While the Tigers in many ways showed the world how tolerance should work, it apparently also wasn't the utopia it's been portrayed by some in the program. Sam told his teammates he was gay in August, and Missouri officials, including head coach Gary Pinkel, held up the team as tolerant and ahead of its time.
Some of that is true, but some of it isn't.
Missouri tight end Eric Waters, apparently tired of some parts of the narrative, took to Twitter to tell, well, the entirety of what it was like for Sam.
"Half of y'all posting these pics saying how proud you are. But most of y'all was the ones talkin s--t behind his back in the locker room," Waters tweeted (without the hyphens). Soon after, he followed up with this:
Translation: Not every teammate was behind Sam.
Waters' tweets demonstrate the complexity of this issue—a complexity that will become even more evident when Waters enters the NFL.
What Sam will challenge is decades of NFL tradition, where homophobic slurs and taunts have been commonplace in the locker room and throughout NFL culture and lore—a mainstay in challenging the manhood of players. We saw the slurs used extensively in text messages between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin in what has become one of the best examples of how players actually talk to each other when no one is watching.
Sam will challenge this culture, and not just on his own team. Across the NFL, the way players and coaches interact, the language they use, will have to change. That is just one thing in football Sam's presence could shift.
"I think you're going to see the NFL and teams really push teams and players to create a work environment that's comfortable for everyone," former NFL linebacker Scott Fujita said.
That is the larger issue, but there is also a more immediate one. As the Waters tweet demonstrated, there are actually multiple truths about gay players in football. This is what makes the Sam story both fascinating and more difficult to decode than some in the media and elsewhere want to admit.
It is not: He will be accepted. It is not: He won't be accepted. It is a combination of the two.
"He'll be accepted by whichever team he joins, without hesitation," said Fujita. "Just like he was at Missouri. I'm certain of it."
Fujita, who has been a leader on this issue for years, said the true problem will be concerns teams have that Sam will be a distraction. "But I would say to general managers concerned about that, think about the real distractions that come across their desk. They have players get arrested, DUIs. Those are real distractions."
"The code word to look for here is ‘distraction,'" fellow activist and former NFL punter Chris Kluwe told 610 SportsRadio in Kansas City. "They always love to use that word, ‘distraction.’ It reminds me a lot of what Richard Sherman was talking about when he said, ‘Why it was OK for everyone to call me a thug when it’s a code word for the N-word now?’ In this case, ‘distraction’ really seems to be a code word for, ‘I’m intolerant, and I don’t like gay people. And I think it’s going to distract people because I’m personally distracted by it.'"
"This is what it will be like in the NFL for Michael Sam," said a current veteran player who asked not to be named. "He will face acceptance. He will also face bigotry. It will mostly be acceptance, but there will be players who will be nervous around him. In the shower especially."
The shower thing…it comes up repeatedly when talking to players about Sam.
"I think that he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted," Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma told Andrea Kremer of the NFL Network recently. "I don't want people to just naturally assume, like, 'Oh, we're all homophobic.' That's really not the case. Imagine if he's the guy next to me and, you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me. How am I supposed to respond?"
Vilma has since appeared on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 in an attempt to clarify his comments, saying his main point was that this was uncharted territory for the NFL, and his original comments were taken out of context.
"The NFL is ready and it's not ready," an NFL team executive said. "The league office wants this. Some of the individual teams themselves are scared of it."
"Some teams will accept him magnificently," said a former high-ranking team executive. "He goes to a team with a Bill Belichick running it, he will be fine.
"Some teams will not accept him. But those organizations will keep quiet. They'll just quietly stay away from him. The issues won't be his teammates. The issues will be with the general managers."
"I would just echo what the league and Zak DeOssie, one of our captains, have said in welcoming Michael into our league and supporting him as he attempts to achieve his dream of playing in the NFL," Giants co-owner John Mara said in a statement. "Our sport, our game, is the ultimate meritocracy. You earn your way with your ability. As Patrick Burke and Wade Davis constantly remind all of us, regardless of who you are, what your background is and what your personal or sexual orientation is, if you can play, you can play. Michael’s announcement will not affect his position on our draft board."
You have to understand how the NFL works. How it really works. You don't get this understanding from reading tweets or watching the All-22 film. You get it from covering the league on the ground level for decades and spending your life in locker rooms.
It goes like this:
The league office wants this to happen. Commissioner Roger Goodell has an openly gay brother. The league office has prepared for this moment for years. Higher-ups see it as an opportunity to show the NFL as a forward-thinking sport. A leader on this issue.
The individual teams are where things get interesting. They are like the states. What happens in California is different from what happens in Mississippi despite the country being under one constitution. Just like the administration and locker room in New England is different from what happens in Seattle.
That's why it's impossible to predict what will happen and, in fact, Sam may experience a cauldron of things. Or nothing. He could experience bigotry, or no homophobia at all.
One other key component is the religion aspect. There are players—and not an insignificant number—who believe it's against God's will to be gay.
Fujita believes this issue can also easily be overcome. He remembers a debate he had with a Christian teammate in 2007: "I talked about marriage equality," Fujita said, "and he had no idea what I was talking about. But we talked things out. It was fine."
Then, that was just theory. Now, it's reality.
Now comes the hard part.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!