The significance of Missouri defensive end and NFL draft prospect Michael Sam's ground-breaking revelation that he's gay immediately struck a chord with former Ravens linebacker and special teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo.
Ayanbadejo regards Sam as a true pioneer in the tradition of Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers legend who broke the color line in baseball as the first African-American player in Major League Baseball.
For several years, Ayanbadejo has been a strong advocate for gay rights and successfully sought to have same-sex marriage legalized in the state of Maryland. Now, Ayanbadejo is supporting Sam as he's poised to become the first openly gay player in the NFL.
"I'm honored to be able to champion the cause and Michael because he's a champion," Ayanbadejo told The Baltimore Sun in a telephone interview from Los Angeles where he recently met with Sam prior to his landmark announcement Sunday night. "When I first decided to talk about equal rights for the LGBT community with me being interracial, it's all related going back to segregation and minority rights. We're trying to achieve equality for everyone. Historically, Michael is in line with what Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks have done.
"I know those are huge names, but what Michael is doing is huge. I don't think I'm too far off to compare him to those huge historical figures. You can still be fired from your job for being gay. Gays are still being murdered today. Look at what happened to Matthew Shepard. I think the impact of what Michael is doing is so much bigger for society than football. I'm proud to continue to contribute to the advancement of society."
Several NFL teams, including the Ravens, have spoken positively about accepting Sam and said they will evaluating him fairly for his talent and character and not downgrade him because of his sexual preference.
However, several anonymous NFL decision-makers have told various media outlets that Sam's draft stock will probably be negatively affected by his disclosure.
Ayanbadejo expressed some concerns about whether all teams will sincerely approach Sam, an All-American selection and Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
"I've heard a lot of good things, but we've also heard negative things from anonymous sources," Ayanbadejo said. "I think Michael has already been contacted by 26 out of 32 teams in some way or another. There might be a little bit of a Rooney Rule component here where teams feel obligated to contact him. There are some teams that are genuinely interested, but there could be some teams having an interview with him that are being politically correct. We'll see.
"I think he's a remarkable young man. He's a physical specimen. He's a heck of a football player. He plays with a high motor, high energy. I'm looking forward to him making an impact I think teams will be impressed with Michael Sam."
Ayanbadejo identified several teams as potential landing spots for Sam, who's graded anywhere from the third round to the fifth round by NFL draft analysts. That included the New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers.
"The coaches I think of right away would be a guy like Jets coach Rex Ryan or Browns coach Mike Pettine," Ayanbadejo said. "Of course, New York is a great progressive city. Those coaches specialize in the specialization of football. If they can find a role for a guy like me on certain snaps, they can immediately insert a player like Sam coming off the edge into the game. I think he would be good fit with Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay. Seattle and Tampa Bay are both progressive cities.
"I think he would do well with teams where they run the Tampa 2 scheme with a 4-3 defense and have the right combination of locker room and coaches and the city. You have to look at the organization. Who's the owner. You want it to be a place where the organization preaches equality and the executives echo those same sentiments. I really like Seattle for some reason. That team jumps out at me based on the way they draft. They could potentially steal Michael late in the draft."
Ayanbadejo praised Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf for his support of LGBT rights, but noted how Vikings special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer allegedly made homophobic remarks in the presence of former punter Chris Kluwe. Those allegations from Kluwe remain under investigation and Priefer remains on the Vikings' coaching staff.
"It has to be a conducive environment," Ayanbadejo said. "If it's not a fit in terms of everything, including football and the organization, then it makes no sense to go there."
Ayanbadejo said the Ravens, who run a 3-4 defense, wouldn't be a good fit in terms of the defense they run, but said otherwise the organization would interact well with Sam.
"I look at how progressive the state of Maryland is and the leadership in the Ravens' locker room, but he doesn't really fit the scheme, so I don't think that's where he'll go," Ayanbadejo said. "[Team president] Dick Cass and John Harbaugh are amazing people, but this has to fit from a football and organizational standpoint."
Some players, including linebacker Jonathan Vilma and New York Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas, have raised questions about whether Sam will be accepted in the locker room.
"Obviously when you're in a locker room, guys say things," Ayanbadejo said. "I always wanted the guys to be aware of what they were saying and conscious of the words they used. In the Baltimore locker room, slowly, but surely, guys started saying certain words less. They didn't stop saying them, but slowly and surely I heard less and less of those words. The team that brings in Michael Sam will need to be prepared and have those conversations with the team and have a conversation with Sam and talk about language and what's acceptable and what's not.
"Teams will be able to prepare. The officiating crews will have to know you can't use that type of language on the field. That's why it was great for Michael to do this so early, so some of the written rules and unwritten rules about how you treat people will be addressed and there won't be discrimination. You have to treat people fairly. People can't say the F word [anti-gay slur]"
Prior to last season, Sam told his Missouri teammates and coaches that he was gay. The team went 12-2 and won the Cotton Bowl as Sam recorded a career-high 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for losses to lead the Southeastern Conference.
"He came out to his teammates and he exploded as the cap was taken off his feelings," Ayanbadejo said. "It raised him up. That's a tribute to him being free and open and able to express himself."
Where Ayanbadejo predicted Sam will have the greatest impact is with younger gays.
"Some of these young kids who know they are gay have a great role model in Michael for years to come," Ayanbadejo said. "Maybe some guys who are closeted in the NFL will come out and it will be less of a story for the next guy. At the end of the day, it's about trying to let people live their lives. At some point, whether someone is gay will be a back story and it isn't going to be an issue."
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