Roger Goodell's reaction of "good for him" to the news Sunday that Michael Sam had acknowledged he was gay was a nice wave of the pompoms for the All-American defensive end from Missouri who's about to enter the NFL draft. But it's important that Goodell, who has an openly gay brother, go further and show more leadership.
As the recent ugliness and confusion about the "bullying" scandal involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin of the Dolphins showed, the league was already crying out for a further codification of its workplace rules on issues such as diversity and hazing.
Sam's impending arrival in the league (he's projected to go anywhere from the third to the seventh round of the draft) just makes it more incumbent on Goodell to make it clear to every last team official and every last player on every last roster in the league that creating a hostile environment for anyone because of his differences won't be tolerated.
Then Goodell should do this for Michael Sam: Give him his office and cell phone numbers and publicly say, "If Sam has a problem, he knows to come directly to me."
NBA commissioner David Stern did exactly that nearly three decades ago when women were still rather new to the sports writing profession and a few were covering his league full time. (I was one of them. I was the Detroit Free Press' beat writer for what became the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons teams.) And the effect of Stern's proactive gesture was powerful.
The NBA had only one or two of the ugly locker room scenes that baseball or the NFL more regularly had with female reporters back then. In Stern's league, I didn't have to endure the likes of then-Tigers manager Sparky Anderson -- the jocular "elfin" manager to everyone else -- going on local television and saying, "Any lady that goes in the locker room ain't no lady to me" or the likes of Jack Morris profanely acting out, as he did to another female reporter a few years later.
I didn't have to go to a Detroit Lions game with my newspaper's attorney and go through the farce of trying to enter the locker room like everyone else after the game -- knowing I would be stopped -- so the attorney could witness what happened, then tell the team that if it didn't give me and our female sports photographer the equal access that had already been affirmed by other courts, the paper might sue.
That night, a leering colleague who knew what was going on made a point to walk across the press box and ask me if I was the "token" girl. And I looked at him and sweetly said, "Yes. And you know, I really wasn't sure I was going to make it today." Pause. "I have horrible cramps."
He blanched, meandered away and never asked me anything impolitic again. A lot of the things that were said then about female sports writers resemble the things being said about Sam now -- or women and gays in the military, for that matter. He'll be a distraction. His mere presence will skew or destroy the work environment. He won't be able to control his sexual impulses. (As if the voluminous texting between Incognito and Martin was about anything but girls and sex when they weren't exchanging gay epithets. Such frequent invoking of heterosexual privilege -- to be as bad as I wanna be -- while gays are expected to remain chaste is a wondrous thing to behold.)
"I'm telling you, 99 percent of it is that some guys say they fear a gay teammate peeking at them in the shower, or while they're dressing and undressing, which is typical of someone that's not comfortable being around gay men -- and I say that because, unfortunately, I used to be that way," says Donté Stallworth, who played in the NFL for 10 seasons and now volunteers as an LGBT advocate for Athlete Ally, an alliance of straight and gay people working together to combat homophobia.
"I completely understand where guys are coming from," Stallworth continued in a phone interview Thursday. "And I'd probably still be the same way I was if I didn't have the experiences that I've had. But I've been around plenty of gay guys. Sometimes it's at establishments I frequent. Or the last girlfriend I had, her best friend was gay. We'd hang out all the time and you start to find your ignorance goes away."
Stallworth, who is 33 and contemplating whether he'll try to play another season in the NFL, said he's been actively engaged in frank discussions with fellow NFL players since Sam came out. Stallworth agrees the long-held orthodoxy that pro athletes won't accept a gay player has too long gone unchallenged and points to the many examples of straight men behaving admirably since Sam, Robbie Rogers of the MLS and Jason Collins of the NBA came out.
"People automatically assume that you will have more than a few players that won't be comfortable with having a gay teammate, but that's not the consensus I've found," Stallworth insists. "Most of the guys don't care. I've talked to others that have expressed some possible discomfort, but not to a level that they'd oppose a gay teammate. And then there are some guys strongly opposed. But there are different degrees of that, too. Even the guys I've spoken to that are opposed don't think that, say, there's going to be any outright physical altercations because of fact [Sam] is gay or anything like that. And even when I've asked them, 'Would you confront someone gay?' they say, 'No, I wouldn't confront them. But I don't know how we'd bond off the field.'
"Honestly," Stallworth said, "I think it's going to be tough for Sam at times and a lot will depend on the team he goes to. But I think it's going to be smoother than anyone thinks."
Some folks thought Stallworth's hope for Sam's smooth transition was thrown into doubt by a Sports Illustrated article this week in which seven team officials who were anonymously quoted all questioned how well Sam would fit in or flatly said his draft status will be adversely affected. One went as far as to say Sam's sexuality would make him a misfit in the "man's man" world of the NFL. As if manhood is defined by whom you sleep with rather than a constellation of other traits that speak to the quality of your character and the ability you bring.
This sort of stereotyping is not new. And it will be navigated. Martina Navratilova heard the same things about what it means to be a "real" woman when she and Billie Jean King were outed months apart 33 years ago.
Twelve years later at the 1993 gay rights march on Washington, Navratilova gave a moving speech on a stage facing out toward the Lincoln Memorial off in the distance to a crowd estimated at more than half a million, and correctly asserted that the most powerful thing the LGBT community has done is come out and refuse to remain invisible -- thereby forcing people to confront that "we're personal, touchable, real."
"We can just be," Navratilova said.
Sam has said that he came out now because he wanted to publicly "own my truth" about himself.
If you think about it, there are times in life when everyone has to declare what kind of person he or she intends to be. If we're lucky, we arrive at that point with some internal scaffolding that keeps us blessedly intact; and if there's resistance we encounter or censure we attract, hopefully, there is some internal or external lantern that guides us through whatever midnight-of-the-soul moments might arise.
Sam so far seems to have all that strength inside him. In abundance. He has said he's ready to take whatever comes his way as the NFL's first active, out gay player.
But thankfully, the days when folks used to wish for some gay Jackie Robinson to come along in sports, flashing the same almost superhuman strength to stoically endure every indignity and insult that comes his lonely way if he wants to play isn't the model anymore. Collins and Rogers were both encouraged by peers to keep playing after they came out last year. And Rogers has. About a quarter of the NFL teams quickly made a point of publicly supporting Sam, too. So did dozens of other male athletes, including Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, Sam's roommate at Missouri two years ago.
There have been countless examples of straight men behaving admirably.
Even the supposed generational bias about who is more liable to accept gays has been tweaked this week. Dale Hansen, a white-haired sports anchorman at Dallas' WFAA-TV, delivered a moving on-air commentary about Sam that went viral. And Giants owner John Mara -- whose family is as old-school NFL as it gets -- was among those who flatly said that Sam's coming out would not affect his position on the Giants' draft board.
And Mara said it as if that's an order.
Now Goodell should do more, too. Goodell should set more explicit NFL workplace rules. Then, give Sam the hotline number to his office and personal phone and let everyone else unequivocally know: Whoever has a problem with any gay player is damn well going to have a problem with me.