Bengals would welcome openly gay player

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals likely won't draft Michael Sam, but count them among the teams that would gladly welcome him or any other openly gay player.

"The Bengals are about winning football games and we are a welcoming workplace that supports the concept of the NFL as a football meritocracy," a team spokesman told ESPN.com earlier this week, citing the franchise's official stance on signing a gay player. "Purely personal factors will not affect the prospects here for someone who shows ability, determination and a commitment to be a good teammate in the club environment."

Sam, a former Missouri football player who could be a mid-round pick in May's draft, revealed Sunday that he was gay.

The sentiments expressed in the Bengals' statement were in sync with what Pro Bowl offensive tackle and team leader Andrew Whitworth told ESPN.com during a phone interview this week from Louisiana, where he is spending his offseason. He spoke about how he believed his teammates and players in other locker rooms wouldn't be concerned with the personal lives of their peers. It's about playing games and winning them, in his eyes.

"The biggest challenge [for Sam] is that he's got to play NFL football and that's not going to be easy," Whitworth said.

As Cincinnati's NFL Players Association representative, Whitworth was the only Bengal who spoke to ESPN.com on this issue, although other voices were sought. While many of his statements would be echoed across the team, it should be pointed out that he mostly spoke on his own behalf. ESPN.com's NFL Nation reached out to players through the league to collect their thoughts on what the league will look like in the wake of Sam's announcement, and the types of challenges they believe he will encounter.

When Whitworth first heard the news, he knew it would have far-reaching impact. But like many others, he questions if it should.

"I knew it was going to be a big story in the media and people were going to have different reactions, but like I've said, for the most part, guys aren't going to be that concerned with people's personal choices," Whitworth said. "The truth is, as much as people want to paint all football players the same, in a locker room with 50, 60 different guys, there's 60 different personalities and preferences ... . I just don't think it's a topic or one of those things that's talked about that much.

"People don't realize this isn't high school football. We aren't sitting around a bonfire talking. This is work. ... Sometimes it becomes a hot topic within the media and within the ranks that try to make it a big deal around fans. But the truth is, if they think this is the first gay player that's been in the locker room, they're crazy."

Cincinnati likely won't be bringing Sam into the fold in May. As a 6-foot-1, 260-pound defensive end (who could be moved to linebacker) in a 3-4 scheme, he doesn't really fit the mold of defender that the Bengals are currently seeking. They like their defensive ends a little leaner, and their linebackers more suitable for playing in coverage and rushing the passer. If he were to transition into a 4-3 linebacker in the Bengals' scheme, Sam likely would be a "Sam" -- or strongside -- linebacker, used mainly in run support.

While the Bengals may need a new "Sam" linebacker in the coming seasons with veteran James Harrison nearing retirement age, their current scheme doesn't seem to support drafting a player for that position.