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Collins, Sam not the problem

| Tuesday, February 25, 2014

By the time you read this, it will be old news. On Sunday, forward Jason Collins signed a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets, played his first game since April 17, and became the first openly gay man to compete in a major American professional league.

In some ways, it was an almost anti-climatic milestone. The crowd at the Staples Center in Los Angele. greeted Collins with polite applause, and he grabbed two rebounds and one steal in 11 minutes of play. If Collins was a “distraction” to his new teammates, it certainly did not show in their 108-102 win over the Lakers. On the contrary, Nets coach Jason Kidd compared Collins to Jackie Robinson and told the media that many members of the team wanted Collins on the squad.

Granted, Collins is signed to a 10-day contract, and he is a 35-year-old veteran who has played for six NBA franchises. The Stanford graduate is respected across the league, and Kidd, his new coach, was his teammate when the two both played for the New Jersey Nets. Aside from being the first athlete from one of the four major sports to announce he was gay before retirement, Collins is about as far from a locker room distraction as anyone in the NBA.

Within the next few months, Michael Sam, a defensive end from Missouri, will almost certainly become the first openly gay athlete to play in the NFL. Although both Collins and Sam have received overwhelming support (Sam came out to his teammates before last season, apparently without negative effect), there are still NFL players and officials who seem to think their league “isn’t ready” for a gay player.

Take Terrell Thomas, a cornerback for the New York Giants, who said he worries about jokes and pranks that might offend a homosexual teammate.

“You don’t know if you’re offending him,” Thomas said. “It changes a lot of things, and I don’t know if the NFL is ready for that.”

Polls show a wide majority of NFL players say they would be comfortable sharing a locker room with gay teammates, but many team coaches and executives expressed concern after Sam told the press he is gay. “It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room,” one team official told Sports Illustrated.

It is not entirely clear why Sam’s sexuality would “imbalance” an NFL locker room when the Missouri locker room remained stable in every sense of the term (after all, the Tigers did go 12-2 and beat Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl), but I find it hard to believe that Sam will be nearly as disruptive as many of his future colleagues. Even if we look at the issue from the perspective of Terrell Thomas, who believes homosexuality is a sin, that would hardly preclude Sam from joining the NFL.

In the past year, we have seen Aaron Hernandez, formerly of the Patriots, implicated in multiple murders. The Eagles kept wide receiver Riley Cooper on the team even after video surfaced that showed an intoxicated Cooper directing racial epithets and threats of physical violence at a concert security guard. And just this month, police in Atlantic City arrested Ravens running back Ray Rice after he allegedly knocked out his fiancée with a blow to the head and then attempted to drag her out of an elevator.

Both Rice and his fiancée, Janay Palmer, were charged with simple assault-domestic violence, and though the NFL could suspend Rice, Ravens coach John Harbaugh has said he expects Rice to remain on the team.

We all know NFL teams are willing to make room for athletes accused of violence, substance abuse and general bad behavior, and yet the delicate locker room environment endures. Either NFL executives vastly underestimate the ability of their players to get along with teammates who are different from them, or they truly believe a man who happens to be attracted to other men is more disruptive or morally objectionable than a man who beats his girlfriend, picks fights in bar, or tortures dogs. Maybe it is these scouts and coaches — not the players — who are not ready for a gay teammate.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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