One of the biggest stories of the 2014 National Football League Draft was that of Michael Sam, who was selected as the 249th overall pick by the St. Louis Rams. Sam has already made history by becoming the first potential NFL player to publicly identify himself as gay and will now be given an opportunity to earn a spot on an NFL roster.
After receiving a congratulatory phone call from President Obama and seeing his rookie jersey skyrocket to become the No. 2 best seller, it’s clear that Sam is the story only some have been waiting for. How will he be met in the locker room of a so-called “man’s-man” game? Read on as we break down some reactions from around the league.
1. Eli Manning, quarterback, New York Giants
After the Giants were rumored to be one of the four teams Sam might have signed with had he not been chosen by the Rams, Manning was asked by HuffPost Live about his impressions of Sam and how he might have been received by the team. “We have a great locker room, and I think the most important thing, the way I look at things, [is] you’re drafted a football player. That’s all we care about in the locker room,” said Manning. “Are you doing your job as a football player? What you do outside and in your personal life is up to you. If you come to work every day and you’re trying to help out the team, then whatever you’re doing in your personal life, it’s OK by us.”
2. Scott Fujita, Fox football daily analyst; retired from the NFL in 2013 after an 11-year career
During his tenure in the NFL as a linebacker, Fujita was known for being a vocal champion of equal rights regarding race and sexual orientation — something he continues to this day. “I don’t anticipate Michael Sam having any problem in any locker room no matter which locker room he joins,” Fujita said to The Times-Picayune. “I think he’s going to be just fine. In fact, I’m actually certain of that. I’ve been in enough locker rooms and I’ve talked to enough players who disagree with me on the issues and completely agree.
“And even for those who are devout Christians, and some of those are still in the Saints locker room and are some of my best friends and I have a ton of respect for that will never agree with me on issue like marriage equality and issues like that. But they also recognize that if someone is a teammate and they’re in the locker room, and that’s a workplace not just a football locker room, they will recognize the need to accept this other man as a teammate in the workplace.”
3. Connor Barwin, linebacker, Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles’ Barwin is best known for his play on the field but is actively part of an off-field culture trying to better the world. Grantland called him “The NFL’s Modern Man” and wrote, “From his promotion of green living and energy conservation to his public endorsement of marriage equality, he’s an individual in a profession where individualism is often demonized.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Barwin wrote a thoughtful essay aimed at addressing NFL locker room culture.
“If Michael Sam can play football, if he proves that he wants to be part of the team, it doesn’t matter who he sleeps with at night. He will not only be accepted in an NFL locker room, he will make it stronger,” wrote Barwin. “The most effective way to overcome bigotry is through personal relationships. My older brother, Joe, is gay. I think most guys in the NFL know someone or know someone who knows someone who’s gay. But for some guys in this league, Michael Sam will be the first openly gay man they have ever met.
“He has a great opportunity to change the stereotypes that many in this country associate with homosexuality. Football is a game where people from all walks of life come together for a common cause, and the game has the unique ability to serve as grounds for social progress. Michael Sam’s biggest challenge won’t be running backs or offensive lineman. It will be the media.”
4. Greg Robinson, rookie offensive lineman, St. Louis Rams
Robinson, who was a first-round pick out of Auburn, is in a different position than most, as he’s currently sharing a locker room with Sam. After being introduced by the Rams, Robinson discussed getting to know his fellow draftee and new teammate: “He seems like a really cool guy and it’s about judging him for what he does on the field,” Robinson said, per KMOV.com. “I don’t think he’ll be a problem in the locker room just because the guy, he comes off as real cool.
“He’s been trying to interact with us because he knows we probably have those thoughts in the back of our head, but I think everybody makes their own decisions and if that’s the way he wants to live his life, then that’s him. But I don’t think it will interfere with football.”
5. Barry Sanders, retired, Detroit Lions
Called one of the game’s most electrifying runners, Sanders played his entire career (1989-1998) with the Detroit Lions after forgoing his senior season at Oklahoma State. A first- or second-team All-Pro for 10 consecutive seasons, Sanders also became the first NFL running back to record five 1,500-yard rushing seasons, in addition to being the only back to do so in four consecutive seasons (1994-1997).
Now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Sanders said he thought Sam’s reception would come down to play: “I don’t think there will be any problem,” Sanders told ESPN. “I think from the time that you’re a kid and you start playing, your major focus, you’re almost programmed to look for, OK, can a guy play or not? I think once you get to the NFL, I think that’s well-ingrained in you. I’m pretty sure that every guy in this league has been around gay individuals before, and so I don’t think that’ll be much different.”