F. Dale Lolley's Sports Column

How Sam plays is what matters

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Can he play or not?

That will be the question awaiting University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam over the next few months. And in the grand scheme of things, it’s the most important one.

Oh, sure, Sam will have plenty of other questions thrown at him during that time span. That goes with the territory of being an openly gay football player.

Notice I didn’t say openly gay NFL player. At this point, Sam, who announced to the world on national TV Sunday that he is gay, still has a lot of work to do before he’s an NFL player.

The SEC co-defensive player of the year last season, Sam does have one problem when it comes to impressing NFL scouts. He’s a tweener. At 6-2, 260 pounds, he might be too small to be a defensive end but not agile enough to play outside linebacker.

In other words, he might be a man without a position.

That hasn’t stopped Sam, who after so-so workouts at the Senior Bowl a couple of weeks ago saw his draft stock slide, from taking a stand of another type.

He’s become a social trailblazer.

In that respect, he deserves praise. It had to be difficult for him to come out to his college teammates as he did last summer. But that decision certainly paved the way for his recent announcement.

Nearly every NFL team knew about Sam’s sexual orientation by tracking him throughout this past season.

It wasn’t a secret to those who spent any time on the Missouri campus.

Sam isn’t the first gay football player. Thousands of young men play the sport at the collegiate level each year. And there are more than 1,000 players in the NFL each season. Odds are good that more than a few of those athletes are gay.

But Sam has taken the big step by putting his sexuality on display for discussion.

Will his new teammates accept him?

There are 60 men working in every NFL locker room. You can bet there are players who don’t like or associate with one another for different reasons.

But if those players are contributors, they coexist even if they don’t necessarily invite each other over for dinner.

If Sam can contribute, he’ll be accepted.

If not, he’ll become a footnote in history.

But if he doesn’t make it, it will not be because of his sexual preference. It will be because he can’t play football at its highest level.

Because of his tweener status, Sam is considered a mid-round draft pick. And as we’ve seen with the Steelers, sometimes those tweener types work out (Joey Porter, James Harrison, etc.) and sometimes they don’t (Bruce Davis, Alonzo Jackson, etc.).

It wasn’t all that long ago – the late 1990s – that fans who wanted to rip Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart but didn’t want to appear as racists, did so by creating stories about his sexuality.

At that point, it was apparently OK to question a man’s sexuality but not his race.

Society has come a long way since then. But we’ve still got a long way to go.

Michael Sam is the next step in that migration, if he can earn a spot on an NFL roster.

F. Dale Lolley can be reached at dlolley@observer-reporter.com.

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