Michael Sam can be accepted and welcomed in a locker room by a majority of his teammates if he can play.
Problem is, he might annoy and even anger a lot of veterans before he has that chance, and that potentially looms as a big issue for the Missouri defensive end who announced he is gay.
Wherever Sam goes, his teammates will be asked about him. How is he in the locker room? How is he practicing? How quickly is he learning? What does he do best?
And some teammates will hate it. They might not hate Sam, but they will hate answering questions about a guy who has never played a down in the NFL.
You can keep your SEC Defensive Player of the Year award. NFL players don’t want to hear it. For an NFL player, it’s about playing in the NFL. It’s about being tough enough to play in the league. It’s about being good enough to play in the league.
But toughness comes first. That’s where respect from teammates develops and credibility follows.
I’m not talking about Sam’s sexuality. That toughness is not a shot at the gay stereotype. It’s about taking hits and delivering them. It’s about getting up and making an opponent struggle to get up.
It’s about surviving. That kind of toughness. That is an NFL player’s barometer and it can only come by playing in games -- NFL games, not college, no matter how good the SEC is.
A seven-year veteran, for example, has proven his smarts and toughness by surviving in the league for seven years, well past the average. That veteran has earned his spot and might believe he has earned attention, so, no, he doesn’t like the attention focused on a middle-round draft pick who has shown nothing in a pro football game.
The veteran doesn’t want to scout the kid for the media. He doesn’t want to focus on the kid for the public. He wants to keep his job. If he’s going to talk about a teammate, it would be someone who also has been tough enough and smart enough to survive the league.
This is not to say Sam won’t be accepted eventually by teammates. This is not to say they won’t be happy to talk about how he’s practicing or playing, but first, he has to play. Sam has to prove to his teammates that he has earned reps because he can play, not because the team has drafted an openly gay player that has everyone watching.
There will be enemies, sure. There will be troglodytes who’ll seize up because an openly gay man is in their midst. Locker rooms are populated with felons, racists and other despicable sorts because they can play.
But locker rooms also are filled with players whose sexuality veers from baby mamas and paternity suits. They’re gay, but not open. They’re playing for the same reason as the criminals: They can help a team win.
That’s what a locker room should care about, and Sam could well help a team win, too. But it’s a long way from proving it in an actual game.