So what will happen when Michael Sam enters an NFL locker room? Steelers safety Ryan Clark has provided a candid assessment of the issues presented by an openly gay player during a visit via satellite to ESPN’s SportsCenter.
Clark said that current NFL players sensed that it was coming, especially with the decision of NBA player Jason Collins to come out as gay in 2013. But Clark’s concern comes from the manner in which players will now interact with Michael Sam.
“You want to know how you can behave around this person,” Clark said. “Anyone who has been in a football locker room knows that there’s a lot of jokes, a lot of ribbing. We’ll talk about anything. If a guy is fat. If a guy is ugly. If a guy’s significant other is not attractive. These are things you josh each other about and you talk with each other about. In what ways can you talk to him? In what ways can you involve him in your conversations? What are the things you can do and say around him that won’t make him uncomfortable? That won’t make him feel that he’s being ostracized? Or that won’t make him feel like he’s being harassed or quote, unquote bullied?”
The H.R./legal department answer will be not to mention it at all. Then again, the folks from H.R. and legal would likely faint if they heard the things routinely said in an NFL locker room. Or in plenty of other workplace settings when H.R. and legal aren’t around.
Apart from the things said in jest within the locker room, Sam needs to be ready for harsh comments during games.
“I think it will be said,” Clark explained. “I think it will be something that’s talked about on the field. I’ve heard things on the field that even I thought were questionable and even I thought went a little far. But it’s what some guys do. Guys read your bio, and speak of guys’ wives. We had the Steve Smith–Janoris Jenkins situation during the season. And so those things happen. Guys don’t pull punches when it comes to players on other teams.”
Fans also don’t pull punches, as we learned this weekend with the Marcus Smart situation. When Sam’s team goes on the road, fans will say ugly things, and they’ll bring potentially ugly signs.
How Sam and his teammates react will go a long way toward determining how long it lasts. Hopefully, it won’t be an issue for very long. Ideally, it won’t be an issue at all.