[Comic by Joe Heller]

It seems that everyone who follows the NFL and the story of Michael Sam is worried. They are worried about the reputation of the league, about Michael Sam’s draft stock, and about how fans will react to him. But most of all, people are worried about the locker room. In blogs all over the web, the question has been posed time and again since Michael Sam came out as openly gay: how will his teammates in the NFL treat him?

Sports in America, and the world at large, are mired with drama. Athletes get arrested for reckless debauchery, coaches lose their jobs over sex scandals, and universities get put on probation for creepily preying on prospects. But one thing athletes and coaches always have to fall back on, to keep them insulated from the hellish world out there when things are going bad, is the team.

Sometimes, the team or organization will go entirely too far to preserve this insulation. Case in point: Penn State football. This program overlooked years of sketchy behavior and child abuse in their facilities to ‘protect’ a pedophile and the organization as a whole. In all actuality, the public relations backlash ended up being worse for it, but that is not really the point.

The point is that athletes and those involved in sports protect their own. There is something about the camaraderie of being part of a team that can transgress all social and political boundaries. We can look to the Yugoslavian national basketball team of the early 1990s and late 1980s, on which teammates from warring factions of Serbia and Yugoslavia were able to play together and get along. Who were the first individuals to accept Jackie Robinson as a peer in the major leagues? His teammates.

Why should we assume that Michael Sam will be treated any differently than so many other trailblazers by his teammates? The public seems to be looking over the fact that Sam played his best season in college after coming out to his teammates with no problems reported. There is no doubt in my mind that Sam will be fine.

A few months back, former Minnesota Viking punter Chris Kluwe was in the news for exposing special teams coach Mike Priefer as a bigoted homophobe. In an open letter to the public, Kluwe quoted Priefer as saying, “We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and nuke it til it glows”. Some would say this is a red flag for Sam, something indicative of deep-seated and institutionalized homophobia in the NFL that a coach would feel comfortable saying something so harsh. But what gives me hope for Michael Sam is the reaction that this brought from the players in the room:

“The room grew intensely quiet, and none of the players said a word for the rest of the meeting. The atmosphere was decidedly tense. I had never had an interaction that hostile with any of my teammates on this issue—some didn’t agree with me, but our conversations were always civil and respectful. Afterward, several told me that what Mike Priefer had said was ‘messed up’”.

The locker room is a place where everyone must have a thick hide to survive. You must be able to take shit, and dish shit out when the time comes. But so far it appears that, in at least one NFL locker room, outright hate-mongering will not be accepted.

Over the years, we have seen different examples of athletes using sports as a means to overcome social boundaries and oppressive attitudes. The fans, however, have not proven to be as tolerant. Instead of NFL players, we on Michael Sam’s side should be worried about those fans who come to games to binge drink and heckle players, or send death threats to the homes of athletes who have displeased them in some way. As a society, we should more often realize that the story of the crowd and the attitude of the spectators can be more compelling than the game itself.

Our test starts this fall.

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