All eyes on Michael Sam ahead of May's NFL draft
The former Missouri Tigers defensive end came out in February
San Francisco 49ers owner John York says Sam's sexuality is not an issue
If drafted, Sam will become first active NFL player to have declared his homosexuality
There will be no room for homophobia at the 2014 NFL Draft, according to San Francisco 49ers owner and co-chairman John York.
When the three-day event, taking place between May 8-10, rolls into town, much of the media’s attention is likely to be focused on Michael Sam – the former Missouri Tigers defensive end who came out as gay in February.
The college football star is expected to be drafted in the latter rounds, and if so, he will become the first active player in the NFL to have publicly declared his homosexuality.
A handful of teams are reportedly interested in recruiting the 24-year-old, and York insists that – regardless of Sam’s sexuality – he would have him at the 49ers should he be deemed good enough.
“If he is the right person and we have a need at that position and he shows the capability on film, what his sexual orientation is would not matter in our locker room,” York told CNN.
Sam’s decision to come out earlier this year means he joins the growing list of sports stars who have opted to reveal their homosexuality.
Former German international footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger, Puerto Rican featherweight boxer Orlando Cruz and NBA player Jason Collins have all come out in recent years, however, they have decided to do so during the latter stages of their careers.
A small number of NFL players, too, have chosen to come out in the past, but only once their professional careers had come to an end – starting with David Kopay in 1975.
The prospect of Sam becoming the first openly gay athlete in the league is simply a natural progression for the sport, according to York, given that Kopay’s own admission occurred nearly 40 years ago.
“The truth of the matter is even though we haven’t had players who are playing come out openly, we’re further along in this curve than people want to make out,” he said.
“I think it’s just natural that there are players in any sport and in any other area of business that there are people of different orientations throughout the population.”
Should Sam move on to the 49ers next month, he could find himself lining up next to Jonathan Martin, who has also had his own personal problems to deal with.
Martin, who arrived in San Francisco from the Miami Dolphins last month, was the target of harassment and bullying from three former teammates.
An independent report found the 24-year-old had been the victim of “sexually explicit remarks” and “racial insults” from Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey, while it was revealed that Martin contemplated suicide as a result of their actions.
But while there has been much sympathy for the offensive tackle in the weeks since, some have suggested he broke the locker room’s code of silence – a claim that York is quick to refute.
“No I don’t believe so,” he said. “The locker room needs to be a professional atmosphere.
“Obviously there’s an element of privacy that’s in the locker room but there’s also an element that needs to be professional and Jonathan will be a part of that professional locker room in the 49ers.”
York added: “There is a code of conduct that needs to be modeled everywhere, no matter where it is. People have to be treated with respect, with dignity and given the opportunity to maintain their own lives.”
York feels the signing of Martin, who has worked with 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh in the past, is proof that his team is doing its best to further the NFL’s boundaries.
“I think that we’ve played a role in that being the San Francisco bay area in trying to be a leader and recognizing that individual rights play a role within sports as they do in the rest of the world,” he said.
Expanding NFL’s reach
While York is keen to further the NFL’s boundaries when it comes to giving players room to express themselves for who they are, he is also committed to helping the sport expand overseas.
The NFL’s profile in England is continuing to grow, with London’s Wembley Stadium having hosted the International Series since 2007, while there has even been talk of a franchise based in the nation’s capital. The Jacksonville Jaguars – whose owner Shahid Kahn also owns English Premier League side Fulham – are reportedly the most likely to relocate to London.
York, a former chairman of the NFL’s international committee, believes a franchise in London would be a great way to boost the sport’s popularity outside of the U.S., although he does not necessarily feel a team would need to relocate across the Atlantic completely.
“I don’t think it will ever come down to that choice [of moving] because I think it’s a totally different market. I think it will be fantastic to have a franchise in both Los Angeles and London,” he said. “[But] I think you’re going to have to develop a new way to think about the way teams play.”
York added: “There are times where you play three games away [in a row] or you play three games at home [each season]. We look at that right now as a potential flaw in the schedule.
“But when you take a team and put them at the distance that London is from the west coast of the U.S., all of a sudden maybe that’s not a flaw, maybe that’s a good point.”