In more than a decade covering the Bears, no question made me more uneasy than the one I asked back in 2003 of former defensive tackle Bryan Robinson, who was falsely accused of sexually assaulting another man.
Police executed a search warrant at Robinson's home, prosecutors declined to file charges and, on that Wednesday, reporters at Halas Hall surrounded Robinson. Once the crowd thinned, I followed up individually by asking Robinson to clarify the nature of his relationship with the male accuser to better understand the man's motivation for filing a complaint. His answer was unprintable. If looks could kill, police would have returned to investigate a homicide in the Bears locker room.
Minutes later, an older, easygoing Bears teammate pulled me aside to explain Robinson's reaction. I'll never forget that veteran telling me NFL players would rather you suggest they're guilty of a crime than gay. It didn't matter that I had made no such suggestion about Robinson; it only mattered that others might, based on circumstances reported in the Tribune on Dec. 4, 2003.
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As Missouri All-America defensive end Michael Sam bravely announced he was gay Sunday night, that memory came to mind as I hoped NFL locker rooms have become more tolerant over a decade. I want to say they have — especially the Bears' culture under coach Marc Trestman. But in the Age of Incognito, I have reservations about speaking with certainty.
With specific detail, I could describe three separate incidents the past couple of years when 1) a Bears player used a homophobic slur to insult another reporter 2) a Bears player called me the same word to my face and 3) a former Bears player referred to Jay Cutler by that term in an off-the-record conversation. And you don't have to eavesdrop to find players occasionally use the slang "No homo,'' which casts homosexuality in an inferior light.
That doesn't mean Sam automatically will encounter open hostility in the NFL. Given the attention Sam will receive for breaking one of the last barriers in sports, many teammates will recognize the value in making a pioneer feel welcome. Some will mind their own business. But, inevitably, a small group of players will remind Sam why so many people attached the word courageous to his decision. To expect Sam to receive blanket approval from teammates and coaches is naive.
"I'm trying to put myself in the situation if he was on my team, I'd feel like he was there for one reason: To help us win,'' retired Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said Monday. "Beyond that, what he does away from the team shouldn't matter. It's work for him just like it is to you.''
Urlacher agreed NFL players need to pay closer attention to how they talk to teammates. Including himself among those who can use Sam's situation as a learning tool, Urlacher compared casual use of homophobic slurs in locker rooms to the way the N-word gets thrown around too loosely.
"How people use language is going to have to change,'' said Urlacher, a Fox Sports analyst. "You form bad habits. The league is trying to clean up the game, so the way things are going, I'm glad (Sam) came out now. I have huge respect for him.''
So does Bears general manager Phil Emery, whose 122-word statement was equally eloquent and enlightened. Emery applauded Sam's character while emphasizing sexual preference never affects evaluation of football performance.
"We all ultimately gain respect in our jobs by how well we perform at our chosen profession,'' Emery said.
What Emery couldn't say: Sam's skill set potentially fits a Bears defense possibly switching to a hybrid scheme and his bright, introspective personality ideally suits a Trestman environment. Consider how respected Sam was at Missouri; nearly 100 teammates preserved his privacy after he came out to them in August.
It takes only one NFL team to make a statement during the draft that's louder than the league's accepting rhetoric the last two days. Sam is a strong, undersized pass rusher scouts refer to as "a tweener,'' a projected third- to fifth-round draft pick before Sunday. If Sam's announcement changed his position on any NFL draft board, shame on that general manager.
"It shouldn't make a difference — it's 2014,'' said Greg Gabriel, the former Bears director of college scouting who writes for National Football Post. "There have been gay guys in the league. I know of at least two who are done now and had very good careers. From my perspective, the only issue is can he play? How good is he?''
How much better is the NFL with Sam in it?
Forget Johnny Manziel or Jadeveon Clowney. The most significant player in this year's draft is Michael Sam because no matter when his phone rings, it will be history calling.