The announcement of star college football player Michael Sam that he was gay sent shockwaves through the sports world. The reigning SEC defensive player of the year is considered a mid-round prospect in May’s NFL draft and is likely to end up on an NFL team and become the first openly gay player in a major American professional sport. One of the vocal voices in the football world on Sam’s situation has been former NFL wide receiver Donte’ Stallworth who spent a decade in the league on six teams, including the New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, and New England Patriots. Stallworth, a first-round pick of the Saints in 2002, talked to The Daily Beast about Sam and about the challenges and atmosphere that the rookie defensive end might face in the pros. (The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Q: I take it that this day coming didn’t come as a surprise, that it was a matter of time until a NFL player came out?
A: I kind of caught me by surprise. Especially when I found out that he was a college player. It showed a lot of courage for him to be able to do that. Especially once I found out the whole story that he had told his team before the start of last season, and they hashed out whatever differences that they had at the time and had a successful year. I think they were 12-2 and one game away from playing in the SEC championship and the SEC is one of the—I’m sorry—is the toughest conference in college football. For them to be able to do it, it’s kind of interesting that you can see a bunch of kids from Missouri can do it, but they’re questioning whether NFL team can handle that. That’s kind of disappointing.
Q: You’re talking about how the concern about distractions [and Michael Sam being a distraction) is really overrated because coaches are there to handle that. How do players deal with distractions, in the first place? You mentioned Aaron Hernandez or Tim Tebow on their teams or the more generic trash talk every week. Is it something that registers?
A: Oh yeah, it does. Especially some coaches will, for instance Bill Belichick, he’s always pretty tight with our media access, so to speak. He’s always been one to tell all the guys to speak for yourselves and don’t give the other team any bulletin board material. So, from that point, he would really be in the position to have his guys understand that the main thing, the only thing, that we’re talking about: We’re being respectful towards our opponent and we are focusing on what we need to do. He would kind of nip it in the bud that way.
Every coach, every organization has their own way of handling distractions, some better than others. I kind of outline in my tweets with the whole Dolphins situation. I knew something was up with that just because with the players, they were all, a lot of them, were backing Richie Incognito. So I tried not to jump to conclusions about what happened in that locker room because only the guys in that locker room know and the coaches. But, to me, they didn’t handle it well at all. They were still talking about it for weeks and weeks and weeks. Nothing was going to change. So it’s like, hey, it happened and it’s over so we have to focus on what it is our job to do, which is playing football and none of them did that. You know, young team, young core, a head coach, I think it’s his first or second season head coaching. So some of the places I’ve been, they wouldn’t have tolerated us talking about it any further than when it first happened. After that, once the questions continued, we would not talk about it anymore and let the process handle itself and our job here is to focus on playing football and that’s the way it should be with Michael Sam as well.
Q: In terms of the locker room culture, in those issues, with homosexuality and culture issues in general. Will there be locker rooms with people with real fundamental issues?
A: Yes. You know, I think there’s not many and there will be some guys that really won’t have the mindset to be able to have a gay player in their locker room, but that’s their problem. To me, it’s like, if the kid comes in and he works hard and does everything that the coaching staff is asking him to do and he’s helping the team win games, the fact that he’s gay, if that gives any players discomfort that’s their problem. That’s the way I look at it.
Q: Was this ever an issue when you were in Baltimore on a Ravens team that had both Brendon Ayanbadejo, who was very vocal on one end of the spectrum, and Matt Birk who was very vocal on the other? Are these discussions that happen or do guys kind of just accept it, even guys who feel strongly on the issue?
A: Yeah, I’ve talked to a lot of guys over the past few years and there are a lot of guys that don’t agree with the lifestyle but would welcome a gay player. It’s just like society. There are so many guys in the locker room, like 55-60 guys in each locker room. They are from different backgrounds, people who grew up in different places, different classes, so it’s pretty much a melting pot, almost parallel to how America is.
For the most part, there are some guys that are opposed or that would be opposed to having a gay player in their locker room. For me, the biggest thing that I’ve always said is I understand that type of thinking because I used to be that way. When I moved down to Miami back in 2006, the LGBT community is pretty large down here and would always frequent a restaurant out here called Nobu. I would always hang out with the waiters, bartenders, and waitresses after work. I’d invite them to wherever I was, and we would all hang out, and one of the waiters was gay. He didn’t come the first few times, he didn’t show up for whatever reason. But then after the third or fourth time I had invited them all, he showed up. I was never one to be mean to him but I just wasn’t comfortable being around gay men at that time. Once he came around and I started to get to know him as a person, you know, I really felt like an idiot. This guy is super cool, he’s not after me.
To me, that’s one of the most insane notions that guys think that every gay guy is after them. And that’s one of the reasons why guys are not comfortable with that, or wouldn’t be comfortable with that in the locker room, but that’s not the case. Since that time, my mindset has changed a lot and I’ve actually been pretty friendly with some gay guys over the years and they’re cool. People make it out like they’re just regular dudes, man. Their sexual orientation is the only thing that makes a difference.
Q: With Michael Sam himself, will there be any extra pressure or issues he’ll face in the NFL? He’s SEC defensive player of the year but coming into the league as a bit undersized and does he have to be that much better than an equivalent player and does it put that much of a burden on him?
A: Yeah, I think the good thing about this whole situation is that he understands that and he knows that. I’ve heard nothing but good things about the kid. One of his coaches at Missouri was my wide receivers coach when I was in college, and I talked to him and he told me that everyone loves the kid. He’s a hard worker and he’s a leader who happens to be gay. So, when you look at the kid and see what type of person he is and get to know him, I think over time, even the guys that are totally against having a gay player in the locker room, once they get to know the kid and once they see that he’s a hard worker and all he wants to do is win and help the team win, then all that will ease over.
Yes, I think it will take time but all of that will ease over for him, and I’m excited about him because it’s an opportunity for guys to be forced to lose some of their homophobia. It’s not an NFL thing, like I said before, it’s a society thing. Just the fact that there are players in the NFL that are strongly opposed to having a gay player in the locker room, but wherever that kid ends up—I hope he ends up in a great place with strong leadership—those guys, hopefully, they’ll be the same way I was when they see that he’s a cool dude and all he wants to do is help the team win. They’ll accept it and not only accept him but accept the LGBT community as a whole.
Q: Do you think this will be something that will break the barrier? Assuming that there are something like 1,600 guys in the NFL, that at least one of them is probably gay, will this encourage others to come out of the closet or will they wait a little bit longer just to see how Michael Sam is received?
A: Right, that’ll be a good thing. Like I said, whatever team he ends up on, they will understand the situation, they have to, and they’ll have strong leadership on that team and within that organization and be able to handle any questions from the media, have their teammates make sure that they understand be respectful like you do to any one of your employees that are there and within that organization.
Q: Do you see any challenges that Sam might face in the league that may not be readily apparent or wouldn’t jump out to an average fan?
A: I don’t think there are going to be—and I’ve talked to a number of different people on this subject—and I don’t think he’ll have any major problems in the locker room in the team that he’s drafted to. I don’t think he’ll have issues there. There are 60 guys in the locker room and sometimes you don’t even get a chance to talk to some guys throughout the week, it’s so compartmentalized. You have your position groups and then you meet as an offense or a defense. You meet as a whole team like once, maybe twice a day. Once in the team meeting at the beginning of the morning and then one time at the very end of the day when you’re breaking down practice.
Those are really the only two times of the day that the team is together outside of the locker room. There are times you don’t even speak to a guy.
There are a lot of guys in the NFL who have common sense, but then again there are some guys who are opposed to having a gay guy in the locker room. At the end of the day, I always try to let guys know, you have to be empathetic towards other people’s causes because you never know when you’re going to need some support from an unlikely source. I always look at it as a Jackie Robinson issue when he was in Brooklyn, it’s kind of the same way. Some of his teammates didn’t like that, fans, people throughout the league, that’s the type of parallel I draw with guys and try to get them to understand how important this is at a different level, not only for him, obviously but for the league and for our country. It’s a huge deal.