Now Mr. Sam enters an uncharted area of the sports landscape. He is making his public declaration [that he’s gay] before he is drafted, to the potential detriment to his professional career. And he is doing so as he prepares to enter a league with an overtly macho culture, where controversies over homophobia have attracted recent attention…

Between now and the draft, Mr. Sam plans to attend the scouting combine, where players are put through a gantlet of physical and mental tests to judge their readiness for the N.F.L. Mr. Sam might be considered too small for an N.F.L. defensive end, meaning he would have to learn to play as an outside linebacker. But it is reasonable for Mr. Sam to wonder what sort of effect — positive or negative — his declaration will have on his prospects.

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But from a purely football perspective, his decision to come out prior to May’s NFL draft will make his path to the league daunting, eight NFL executives and coaches told SI.com.

In blunt terms, they project a significant drop in Sam’s draft stock, a publicity circus and an NFL locker room culture not prepared to deal with an openly gay player. Sam, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, was projected as a mid- to late-round draft pick prior to his announcement…

“I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,” said an NFL player personnel assistant. “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”…

Multiple NFL executives questioned Sam’s decision to come out now, as he will be the biggest story in football between now and the NFL draft on May 8.

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“We talked about it this week,” the GM said. “First of all, we don’t think he’s a very good player. The reality is he’s an overrated football player in our estimation. Second: He’s going to have expectations about where he should be drafted, and I think he’ll be disappointed. He’s not going to get drafted where he thinks he should. The question you will ask yourself, knowing your team, is, ‘How will drafting him affect your locker room?’ And I am sorry to say where we are at this point in time, I think it’s going to affect most locker rooms. A lot of guys will be uncomfortable. Ten years from now, fine. But today, I think being openly gay is a factor in the locker room.”

I asked this general manager: “Do you think he’ll be drafted?”

“No,” he said

During the draft, a team that has Sam graded barely above another pass-rush prospect in the third or fourth round may ask itself: Will all the distractions—the network news trucks, the questioning of his teammates about accepting a gay teammate—be worth it? Or should we just draft the other guy and not worry about Sam’s off-field stuff?

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A comparison to Jason Collins, the National Basketball Association player who came out last spring, is instructive. It’s not a competition, but—ignoring for a moment that Collins did it first—Sam’s coming out is a much bigger deal. Collins came out at age 34 and near or at the conclusion of his career as a professional athlete, having made a living playing ball for 12 years. Sam came out at age 24 and the very beginning of his career, with all of his earning years ahead of him. Especially given where they respectively are, Sam is simply better, and therefore risking more. Though some have raised their eyebrows at the fact that no NBA teams have signed Collins, it has not became a major controversy because it is plausible that Collins would not receive a roster spot on the merits. By contrast, if Sam is not drafted and there is no obvious reason why other than the most obvious reason, it will rightly be a scandal. Finally—and I say this with a lot of love for professional basketball—there is nothing in American sports like the NFL…

Sam killed it this past season, leading his team to the conference championship game with a conference-leading 11.5 sacks. And his teammates knew. And they—dozens of college kids!—were respectful and discreet enough that we are only learning about this now, because Sam wanted us to. “There are guys in locker rooms that maturity-wise cannot handle it or deal with the thought of that,” one NFL assistant coach told SI. Whichever NFL franchises believe their locker rooms aren’t ready for Sam might want to consider cutting everyone and starting afresh. They could do worse than by drafting this Missouri Tiger—or any Missouri Tiger.

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Sam said he was thrilled with the show of support within the program.

“Just to see their reaction was awesome,” he told ESPN. “They supported me from day one. I couldn’t have better teammates. … I’m telling you what: I wouldn’t have the strength to do this today if I didn’t know how much support they’d given me this past semester.”…

Pinkel said no players came directly to the coaching staff with concerns after Sam revealed his sexual orientation to the team, but he suspects that there was initially a mixed reaction.

“There are certainly players that have differences of opinions, not only on this but other social issues,” Pinkel said. “I’m not naive enough to believe that [there is not], I’m sure there are. But at the end of the day, it’s about the team, it’s about the family. We accept one another, we accept our differences, and that’s where respect and understanding is important.”

***

“I think the bottom line for most players is — if you have a teammate that can help you win, it doesn’t matter,” said John Murray, a clinical and sports psychologist in Palm Beach, Fla., who has worked with NFL athletes…

In ideal circumstances, a team may function much like a family, experts say “Teams are going to protect their own,” Murray said.

“The family will kind of circle the wagons, and protect their secret,” he said. “Because a family very well represents that concept of a unit that needs to be able to be cohesive to be able to perform well, to be able to win.”

***

What undergirds this logic is a fear of being made into a woman, which is to say a fear of being regarded sexually by someone who is as strong as, or stronger than, you. Implicit to the fear is the gay player’s ability to do violence. It exists right alongside a belief that the gay player is a “sissy.” (“Grown men should not have female tendencies. Period,” Vilma once tweeted.) The logic is kin to the old Confederate belief that Southern slaves were so loyal and cowardly yet they must never be given guns.

The mythology Jonathan Vilma endorses will not fade through vague endorsements of “tolerance,” lectures on “acceptance,” nor any other species of heartfelt magic. The question which we so often have been offered—is the NFL ready for a gay player?—is backwards. Powerful interests are rarely “ready” for change, so much as they are assaulted by it. We refer to barriers being “broken” for a reason.

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One thing many people miss about that time [1947] — the most powerful enemies of integration were not the red-faced extremists and racists who turned on fire hoses and lined the streets while shouting at black children trying to go to school. No, the real battle was being waged at the dinner tables of middle-class families, in the thoughtful conversation of universities and office buildings, in swing-set talks on the playground. There, Jackie Robinson’s cause was not viewed as unmistakable. There, the counter arguments sounded so reasonable.

The arguments: Black players, because of their backgrounds, cannot handle the intensity of Major League Baseball (“It’s not their fault!” the more progressive would add). They don’t have the attitude or intelligence to play the game at the highest level. Some racist white teammates, you see, will not accept a black player. Team chemistry, always so fragile, will be shattered. Yes, of course, it would be wonderful if everyone was treated equally; it’s something we should all strive for, but the world is a harsh place, the world does not have only open-minded people, the world is not such a nirvana yet. And black players have their own Negro Leagues already…

Immediately after the announcement, there were the expected reactions — widespread and heartfelt praise for Sam’s courage and the more limited gay slurs and dismissals mostly hidden behind anonymity and Twitter handles. But, like with Jackie Robinson, the battle is not waged on the high or low ground of the extremes. It is waged in the center. And in the center you can see that the Michael Sam story — and the story of how we see gay people in 2014 — is extremely complicated.

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We will find out who is expressing support for Sam as just a convenient public stance, the pat vocabulary of acceptance pandering to the corporate sponsors, and who is willing to genuinely change the culture of their organizations beyond the cameras.

Make no mistake, Sam will be under pressure from gays, too. The danger with aligning himself with any broad-brushed “community” is that pretty soon some people will be telling him there is a right and a wrong way to be gay. He will find out what all public performers in all fields know, that an audience can be highly proprietary, sometimes in an ugly way. As Jodie Foster once wrote in Esquire, “I can be rejected for physical reality, the audience’s perception of who I am. Consequently, I become the property of my judges.”

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Michael Sam is no longer just auditioning for an NFL roster spot; he’s also angling for a monumental place in American history. How will current, closeted NFL players feel about this in the coming months? Will the Kleig lights now shining on Sam move them to one-up him as the first?…

Chances are high there is a star-caliber closeted NFL player watching Sam’s story unfold with a mixture of admiration and jealously. Gay athletes have just as big of egos as straight ones, and NFL veterans risk a lot to earn and keep jobs in their industry. They often show rookies their place, whether through hazing rituals, or agreeing to CBA terms which have ensured players in the first years of their career earn less than their elders no matter how good they are. Now that Sam has shown that on the whole society is warm to the idea of a gay NFL player, it doesn’t make sense that someone of Aaron Rodgers’s stature would voluntarily relinquish a form of immortality to some unproven pup.

Unprecedented cross-cultural appeal as the first openly gay—and actually good—player in America’s top sport is a valuable possession. It is bouncing Michael Sam’s way, but remains very much in play.

***

This is getting tiring. This can end TODAY with one quality starter on one football or basketball team pulling a Neil Patrick Harris and then going on about his business. By coming out and being so admirably open, Sam has made this process even easier. He’s the perfect ambassador. And yet, if no one joins him, he still might find himself on the discard pile. And if that happens, the chance will be lost again. Players like Sam will continue to stick their necks out and get guillotined as long as it remains easy for GMs to collectively blacklist a gay player who is either a) a marginal talent or b) can easily be portrayed as a marginal talent.

Now that Sam is here, someone else needs to step forward who cannot be so easily ignored, who will extract a bare shred of courage from his team’s GM. Someone has to make what will, in the end, be a relatively small sacrifice given that fans are dicks to athletes no matter who they are or how they perform. Someone, a star, needs to break through the ceiling so that Sam won’t break his f***ing neck crashing into it. All it takes it one other guy. One other voice. Michael Sam shouldn’t have to do this alone because he ISN’T alone, and we all know it.

***

The voice on the other end of the line produced a knowing laugh, one confident in the knowledge gleaned from 15 years in NFL locker rooms. In Matt Birk’s estimation, the players’ sanctuary is the last place to expect problems for Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, whose historic announcement Sunday makes it likely he will be the first openly gay man to play in the NFL.

“I would put it like this,” Birk said. “Over the years I can think of 10, maybe 12 guys that I played with that I know are gay. Everyone on the team knew they were gay, and they knew that everyone knew they were gay. They didn’t take that step of going public, but it never was an issue in my experiences.

“I get why this is an issue, especially when you look at the bullying story with [Miami Dolphins offensive linemen] Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito. I get why people would be concerned. But I think we really underestimate football players sometimes.”

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