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1st openly gay NFL player to face hurdles

(AP Photo/Brandon Wade, File)

By ARNIE STAPLETON

AP Pro Football Writer

(AP) -- Michael Sam will face a daunting set of challenges that most rookies don't have to deal with when making the already formidable jump from college to the NFL.

The SEC's co-defensive player of the year is about to find out if America's most popular sport, rooted in machismo and entrenched in locker room hijinks, is ready for its first openly gay player.

First, he'll have to find a team willing to put up with the media circus that will surround him. Then, he'll have to find acceptance like he did at Missouri, where his sexuality was a non-issue during a 12-2 season. Only now, he'll face opponents and their fans who know he's gay. He might even face cheap shots and teammates hesitant to shower alongside him or undress in his presence.

While several teams and coaches said Monday that Sam's sexual orientation wouldn't affect his draft status, former NFL punter Chris Kluwe, who contends his championing of gay rights led to his release from the Minnesota Vikings last year, wasn't so sure.

"The majority of players will be supportive of Michael Sam or just won't care," Kluwe said. "You'll have isolated guys here and there who might try to make a fuss about it, but players by and large are very much, `Hey, we're here to do a job, we're here to go out and play football.'

"In terms of the coaching/front office side, I think there's where issues are going to arise because they are going to look at this like, `Hey, is this going to cause a distraction for the team?' And by distraction, they mean, `We're not really OK with having a gay player on our team, we can't come out and say that, so we're going to use the word distraction,'" Kluwe added. "And unfortunately, those are the people who determine if you're employed or not."

John Elway has a unique perspective running the Broncos' front office now after a Hall of Fame playing career, and he said Monday he'd have no problem drafting Sam.

"We will evaluate Michael just like any other draft prospect: on the basis of his ability, character and NFL potential. His announcement will have no effect on how we see him as a football player," Elway said. "Having spent 16 years in an NFL locker room, the bottom line is that it's about treating others with respect and earning that respect. By all indications, it appears Michael has done just that throughout his football career."

Several coaches said if a player is accountable and a winner, being gay is a non-issue.

"If anybody can come in and help us win games and be successful - black, white, yellow, straight, gay - I don't think it matters," said new Green Bay quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt.

Before Sam revealed his sexual orientation, the pass-rusher was projected as a mid-round draft pick.

Kluwe said reports that Sam's draft stock could drop because he revealed his sexual orientation "basically could have been lifted from any American sporting paper in the 1940s when Jackie Robinson was about to enter Major League Baseball. It's like we've been here before. Why do we have to keep doing the same thing?"

Sam will likely face even more scrutiny from opponents' fans than Chargers linebacker Manti Te'o did after getting fooled by a hoax involving a fake girlfriend while at Notre Dame.

What will help Sam is landing on a team with strong veteran leadership, something that was lacking in Miami, where tackle Jonathan Martin walked away at midseason, alleging guard Richie Incognito led daily harassment with racial, aggressive and sexually charged comments. Incognito was suspended for the final eight games and Martin's career was thrown in limbo.

Former Redskins tight end Chris Cooley said Sam's performance on the field and as a teammate should quickly overshadow any stereotypes about sexual orientation.

"I don't think he faces any challenges as a player. I don't think he faces a lot of challenges as a person," Cooley said. "I think once he establishes himself as the kind of teammate he's going to be, I think everybody will accept it fine."

Eagles All-Pro guard Evan Mathis said Sam will face obstacles no matter what.

"NFL players shouldn't judge Michael Sam based on his sexuality but some guys will. MLB players shouldn't have judged Jackie Robinson based on his skin color but some did," Mathis said. "Whether or not the NFL is ready for it, it needs to happen. There are still people on this Earth who lived through the prohibition of alcohol and the Civil Rights movement. They can look back and reflect on how primitive those times were.

"Current generations will look back at marijuana prohibition and gays having to fight for equal rights and think how primitive those times were."

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

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AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi and Dave Campbell and AP Sports Writers Kurt Voigt, Genaro Armas Joseph White and Janie McCauley contributed.

Updated February 10, 2014

w4 © 2014 by STATS LLC and Associated Press.
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