Three weeks ago, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman suggested that “thug” has become code for racial slurs. Former NFL punter Chris Kluwe has applied that same argument to the circumstances confronting former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam.
In Kluwe’s mind, another term suggests intolerance to sexual orientation.
“The code word to look for here is ‘distraction,'” Kluwe told Henry Lake and Jay Binkley of 610 SportsRadio in Kansas City. “They always love to use that word, ‘distraction.’ It reminds me a lot of what Richard Sherman was talking about, when he said, ‘Why it was OK for everyone to call me a thug when it’s a code word for the N-word now?’ In this case, ‘distraction’ really seems to be a code word for, ‘I’m intolerant and I don’t like gay people. And I think it’s going to distract people because I’m personally distracted by it.'”
Kluwe is right, to an extent. Some coaches and/or General Managers will hide behind the term “distraction” because they simply don’t want to have an openly gay player in the locker room, either because they disagree with that orientation or because they fear the locker room will become divided and dysfunctional.
But some teams truly won’t want the distraction that comes from the enhanced media attention, the Tebow-style coverage of training camp (and you can bet that ESPN will set up shop wherever Sam is practicing in late July), and everything else that goes along with being the first team to have an openly gay NFL player.
In this case, “distraction” can have two meanings. It can mean what it says — because, clearly, Sam’s presence will be a distraction, at least in the short term. It also can mean something nefarious.
Manti Te’o was a potential distraction in 2013, and the Chargers didn’t hesitate to move up in round two to get him. Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin will be distractions in 2014, but both will likely find NFL homes. Tim Tebow is a major distraction — and largely because of that he remains unemployed.
Sam will get a chance to show that he can play at the NFL level, and that he can deal with the burdens of being the first openly gay NFL player. Ultimately, teams are looking for players who can help them win games. For at least one NFL team, the possibility that Sam will develop into a potent pass rusher will outweigh whatever short-term distractions may arise from selecting him.
For others, Kluwe may be right. The unwillingness to embrace a “distraction” possibly will flow from a reluctance to accept Sam for who he is.