For any NFL team thinking about drafting Michael Sam, the Missouri pass rusher who now has come out as gay, there are three questions that will be considered. There should be only one question, the first one, but this is just a recognition of the reality in 2014.
1) Can he play?
2) Will the media distraction be overwhelming?
3) Will his teammates accept him?
None of us can answer the first one. Sam is an undersized defensive end who probably cannot play that position in the NFL. How he would translate as an outside linebacker is a projection that only professional talent evaluators can make -- and even they will disagree, in all likelihood. The point is, we don’t know the answer to this one and will be kidding ourselves if we pretend to know.
But if a team answers that first question in the affirmative, they could call the Eagles for some help with the next two. The truth is, the Eagles are uniquely qualified to answer them. The truth also, from the Eagles’ experience, is that neither of them should be thought of as a significant impediment.
Because if the Eagles could survive the media firestorm that accompanied their signing of Michael Vick, then any NFL team can deal with the attention -- attention that will be overwhelming positive -- that will follow the drafting of the NFL’s first openly gay player.
And because if the Eagles’ locker room could survive the incendiary presence of wide receiver Riley Cooper following his racist YouTube meltdown last summer, then any NFL team with strong leadership at the top and also within the locker room will accept Sam for what he is, a football player whom the coaches believe can help the team win.
The media part of this isn’t even really a question. The attention will be overwhelming at the very beginning -- and, again, it will be overwhelmingly positive. But the Eagles’ experience, with both Vick and Cooper, is that the attention wanes with every news cycle.
The Eagles have a strong, experienced public relations department and they seem to have developed a knack for offering a ton of media access to the principals for the first day or two, then less, then back to business. It was harder with Vick because of the animal rights protesters, but even that died down quicker than anyone predicted.
Again, this will not be hard because it is a positive story, not the story of someone coming back to the NFL from a dog fighting conviction. Besides, after everyone gets the initial story, Sam undoubtedly will say that he is just a kid trying to make a football team, and that will be that. Media people will follow his lead and respect his wishes.
So the media part is nothing. The locker room is different. People need to understand, though, that locker rooms are not homogenous places now. This cannot be repeated often enough. NFL locker rooms are currently divided by offense and defense, black and white, young and old, religious and not so much. This is just one more bit of diversity, and the suspicion is that NFL players will handle this just as players at Missouri handled it.
The truth is that the Riley Cooper situation was much harder for a team to deal with than a Michael Sam situation will be. The Eagles survived Cooper for a couple of reasons. The first is coach Chip Kelly, who said that he wanted Cooper to be a part of the team and insisted upon an open and continuing dialog among the players until the issues were sorted out to people’s satisfaction.
The second key was the leadership group among the players, particularly people such as Vick, Jason Avant and DeMeco Ryans. Whatever they might have felt personally after seeing Cooper’s racist rant, they put the team first. Their stance, and their stature in the locker room, made this work. Cooper became a non-issue, and very quickly.
And so it will be with Michael Sam, if he goes to a team where the leadership core -- owner, coach and veteran players -- can emphasize the only two points that matter: that supporting an openly gay teammate is the right thing to do, and that it is the best thing for the team’s future success.
It is not that hard, after all. Just ask the Eagles.