Mizzou Model: Can NFL, U.S. Treat Gay Athlete As College Did?

University of Vermont Club Hockey Team's Luke Ceplikas brings the puck up the ice against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at UVM's Gutterson Fieldhouse in Burlington, Vt., on Friday, Jan. 31, 2014. (Valley News - Andy Duback)

University of Vermont Club Hockey Team's Luke Ceplikas brings the puck up the ice against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at UVM's Gutterson Fieldhouse in Burlington, Vt., on Friday, Jan. 31, 2014. (Valley News - Andy Duback)

After the brave announcement, after the big headline, after the initial blast of reaction, after the natural social and cultural debate, after the hand-wringing over draft status, after all this and months of more coming, here’s the fundamental question over Michael Sam:

Can an NFL team handle an openly gay player as well as the University of Missouri did?

And, to extend that, can we?

The best college teams provide an education on how to act in the real world for players. But for the past year Missouri was more real than any place in sports. It was a football biosphere of leadership and respect that every pro team should model.

Last August, Sam announced to his Missouri teammates he was gay as loudly as he did to the world Sunday night. Surely some Missouri players, coaches and administrative staff wrestled with Sam’s announcement. It would be naive to believe otherwise.

But no teammate “outed” him. No coach or administrator questioned him as far as he said. Nor did any media outlet report what was the loudest of rumors — even I heard whispers of it a month ago — until Sam decided it was time.

In other words, give yourself a hand, Missouri. You’re the role model. You acted maturely. You dealt responsibly for the past six months with an issue that is considered the final frontier of dramatic sports stories.

And look what happened. Missouri’s football season wasn’t torn apart by the “distraction” of Sam. Quite the opposite, in fact. It had its best year in decades. It went 12-2.

Sam wasn’t just a part of that. He was on the marquee. He was a team captain. He was named the Southeastern Conference co-defensive player of the year. And only then did he decide to go public with his orientation, because it would affect him and not his team.

All across the public sports world today, he is applauded in the same manner former NBA player Jason Collins was. This is why Sam isn’t Jackie Robinson II. Tolerance is expected, diversity understood. Prejudice remains a vice, like smoking, that won’t disappear. It can be discussed, though. And in the discussing change rolls in slowly.

In Sochi, where there are anti-gay laws, the U.S. Olympic team responded by including three famous athletes who are gay in its delegation. The German team wore rainbow team coats at the Opening Ceremony to express themselves.

This is the general climate Sam arrives in. Some bad. A lot of good. And it’s interesting how we had it all backward. Most of us expected some star athlete to announce himself as gay — or “admit he was gay,” as a TV reporter said, proving again we have miles to go.

But sports change often bubbles from below. The run-pass option offense that is the rage of the NFL today wasn’t conceived by some pro coach. It came from the college game, which got it from the high school game, which spawned it from seven-on-seven teams.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that a player out of college took it upon himself to announce himself while entering the pros. Not everyone will accept him. That’s to be expected. Nor will every team want him.

“I think he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted,” New Orleans Saints linebacker and former UM star Jonathan Vilma said last week on the NFL Network when asked a general question about any gay athlete in the locker room.

This will be part of the healthy exchange that’s coming. And the question is whether America can be Missouri. Can we understand there will be differences but still maintain a level of respect?

“I’ve never really understood the big deal about knowing someone’s sexual preference,” Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes tweeted Monday. “I don’t care.”

A fan, Ryan Dahn, tweeted back: “but other gay athletes care. And athletes “coming out” are letting other gay athletes know “it’s ok to admit this.”

Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline tweeted: “Our point is, why do you feel you have to tell people … regardless.”

That’s a conversational lane now. There will be more. Sports, ultimately, is a meritocracy. Tim Tebow, for all his religion, is out of football because he couldn’t throw a football. Riley Cooper, for his racial epithet mistake, continues on because he can catch a football.

Can Sam play at the NFL level? That’s a legitimate question. Some teams won’t draft him, because they don’t think his talent is worth the trouble. Beyond that, some teams shouldn’t draft him. The Dolphins saga involving Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito will be Exhibit A.

“When you have a locker room atmosphere like that, when people are verbally destructive to one another and call (it) fun. … I think there’s a fine line there,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said on the radio Monday.

Pinkel drills four teaching points to his players: 1) Be honest; 2) No drugs; 3) Be respectful of women; 4) Be respectful of the diversity of people.

Missouri wasn’t an incubator of the real world last football season. It was the real world. The question moving forward is whether a world full of adults acts as responsibly as college kids did.