As soon as Missouri defensive end Michael Sam appeared on ESPN's Outside The Lines to inform the world that he was gay, we saw a host of reactions from players, coaches and personnel people. Of those reactions, most were of the public variety, but SI.com (among others) had a few anonymous comments about Sam's draft stock and what his announcement could mean.
"I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," said an NFL player personnel assistant. "In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."
This much-shared quotation should not be meant to represent the entirety of the NFL, but it does represent a sizable chunk of people that we hear about every draft season. Whether it's Michael Sam's sexuality, Johnny Manziel's partying ways, Cam Newton's smile or some still unknown issue with Geno Smith, one of the most common critiques we hear every year is that of the "distraction". A given player might slip on X, Y and Z draft boards because of off the field distractions.
It is entirely possible, and probably likely, that some players on Sam's potential future team will have a problem with his sexual orientation. While we've heard great things about the Missouri football team, there was a tweet at one point (I can't remember the player in particular) that made an interesting point:
I think this is actually important because even though people had some problems with this, they didn't take it public. Talking crap behind someone's back isn't a healthy approach, but the team was winning, and people seemed to put up with it. Ideally, if there are intolerant people in the locker room at the next level, they'll be kept in line by the leaders of the team until they start to realize the reality of the situation.
Michael Sam is the story of the week (and really the year), but this is an issue that goes beyond him. Anonymous GMs and coaches will complain about all sorts of things as distractions, when in reality they are seemingly creating excuses when things go south for them.
Former NFL wide receiver Donte Stallworth had some very interesting tweets about this notion of distractions vs. excuses:
Herm Edwards posed a hypothetical question on epsn re: drafting Michael Sam, "can (GM/owner/coach) handle the media... with this situation?"— Donte' Stallworth (@DonteStallworth) February 10, 2014
If any NFL team can't "handle the media coverage" of drafting Sam, then your team is already a loser on the field... let me tell you why...— Donte' Stallworth (@DonteStallworth) February 10, 2014
There are a multitude of issues that can arise in the long duration of an NFL season... some on the field, some off the field.— Donte' Stallworth (@DonteStallworth) February 10, 2014
You won't have any idea what that on the field/off the field situation is until it's already upon you and the entire organization...— Donte' Stallworth (@DonteStallworth) February 10, 2014
Which means that with drafting Michael Sam, you get a jump start on controlling the "media coverage" right from the onset.— Donte' Stallworth (@DonteStallworth) February 10, 2014
If an organization is inept to the magnitude of not being able to control things with prior knowledge, how will you handle the unexpected?— Donte' Stallworth (@DonteStallworth) February 10, 2014
Case Study 2: The New England Patriots and Aaron Hernandez AND Tim Tebow situations...— Donte' Stallworth (@DonteStallworth) February 10, 2014
Beyond the state of shock I endured after the revelations of Hernandez, I knew that if ANY organization could handle this, it was the Pats.— Donte' Stallworth (@DonteStallworth) February 10, 2014
This all happened right before training camp where players are supposed to come in w/clear minds in preparation for a long, rigorous season.— Donte' Stallworth (@DonteStallworth) February 10, 2014
Not only were there questions about Aaron, but also about the health of Gronkowski and how those two combined affected the team as a whole.— Donte' Stallworth (@DonteStallworth) February 10, 2014
Aaron is still awaiting trial & Gronk played in only 7 games this season...but yet the Pats seemed to avoid those "distractions" altogether.— Donte' Stallworth (@DonteStallworth) February 10, 2014
Despite many season ending injuries to key pieces, the Pats finished 12-4 and lost to the Broncos in the AFC title with... ZERO distractions— Donte' Stallworth (@DonteStallworth) February 10, 2014
Not to mention the whole Tebow signing and (alleged subsequent) distraction wasn't even a blip on most radars... Why?— Donte' Stallworth (@DonteStallworth) February 10, 2014
Because Mr. Kraft and Bill Belichick would not allow ANY of that to be a "distraction" to ANYONE in the entire organization...— Donte' Stallworth (@DonteStallworth) February 10, 2014
In my experience, if your organization can't "handle media coverage", they will suck on the field anyway... but hey, there's always 2015...— Donte' Stallworth (@DonteStallworth) February 10, 2014
Stallworth talks about Belichick and Kraft in this situation, but look at how other teams handle distractions, and you get an idea of the pecking order of the NFL. Take our own 49ers as an example. Aldon Smith had to deal with five weeks of rehab, and the team found plenty of ways to win during that absence. Colin Kaepernick had to deal with the Miami Dolphins hat in the offseason, and then the clothing issue during the season. We heard a lot about this, but the 49ers did not let it bother them, or at least did not let it bother them in a public manner.
I realize those 49ers examples are not quite the same as the media circus that will surround Michael Sam when he hopefully reports to the offseason workout program and training camp for his given team. There are different degrees to this, but that being said, I still agree with Stallworth that certain franchises have the personnel in place to deal with this kind of thing. The 49ers have struck me as that kind of franchise.
And while some might not like it, the Seahawks seem to be one of those kinds of franchises. There was all this media chatter about Richard Sherman being a distraction following the NFC Championship Game, but that proved to be bologna. And imagine if a team like the Cleveland Browns or some other sad sack franchise had all the positive PED and recreational drug tests we've seen in Seattle since 2010? It's shady behavior, but the franchise has actually done a good job not letting it be a distraction.
Off the field issues do not make life easier for any franchise. While there is no denying that, certain franchises have put themselves in a position to be better equipped to deal with this kind of stuff. And generally speaking, that involves a strong sense of leadership. Shockingly enough, these franchises with that strong leadership often end up being the better teams in the league. Whoulda thunk it?!