Jeff Schultz

This AJC sports blogger takes things seriously when he has to, but he really would rather not

Dimitroff concerned about player's 'skill set,' not sexuality

It’s common for there to be disagreement on where and when an NFL prospect will be drafted, so Missouri defensive end Michael Sam being projected to go anywhere from the third to fifth round to possibly not even taken isn't unusual. But the fact an online sports book has posted an over/under on Sam’s draft spot – 125½ -- should indicate he is not your typical mid-round prospect.

Sam is homosexual. It would be naive to believe there aren’t any gay players in the NFL. But no current player has gone public and Sam is the first athlete to go public with an otherwise private matter just prior to his professional career -- and before he has been drafted.

The obvious question: Will it affect his draft status?

Sports Illustrated jumped on the Sam story early by quoting eight anonymous NFL executive. Nobody was on the record. It's the slimiest and most irresponsible form of journalism. There’s a big difference between using unnamed sources for a news story that can be verified – example: Watergate – and using blind comments for what amounts to an opinion piece on somebody sexuality and speculation on the draft.

A number of NFL executives have since stepped forward to speak publicly in their support of Sam. We can now count Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff among them.

“We recognize and appreciate the courage that Michael Sam demonstrated with his recent announcement,” Dimitroff said. He added the player’s sexuality “will have no bearing on how we evaluate him as a football player.

“If we deem Michael Sam as being an ideal fit for us as football player and a character and having upside to play in this league, we would consider the acquisition. But that’s what I would say about any player in this year’s draft.”

Dimitroff didn’t specifically address his evaluation of Sam as a player. (The Falcons got a closeup view of him in the Senior Bowl as coach Mike Smith and his assistants coached Sam's team.) But he said the lineman’s sexuality did not prompt the team to move him down the Falcons’ draft board.

“I firmly believe it’s about the skill set and the natural ability of the football player,” he said. “If that player will make our team better, and this is what I truly believe is true in the NFL, we’ll move forward and make the selection.”

He said he hasn’t spoken to other NFL general managers about this subject so he doesn’t have a feel for what others are thinking. “Quite honestly, this is about what the Atlanta Falcons believe. I know some things have been written. I’m sure opinions will be all over the board.”

NFL teams investigate backgrounds of all players, particularly before a draft. But Dimitroff said a player’s sexuality “hasn’t been part of our focus” in the past

He believes there are gay players in the NFL. Of course. Stories on demographics of sexual orientation of men have placed estimates of 1.7 to 10 percent being gay. With 1,900 players on rosters and practice squads, even the low end of 1.7 percent equates to 32 players -- or one per team.

But no gay athlete has public disclosed his sexual orientation during his career. The closest exception: former Atlanta Hawks and NBA center Jason Collins, who came out last April near the end of his career. He has not been signed by any team this season.

Dimitroff understands the concerns over team chemistry and distractions as well as anybody. “But we’re not concerned over (potential) distractions over this situation,” he said. "There’s such a wide range of opinion about what a distraction is in the NFL. It varies from one team to another."

Would he or Smith feel the need to take a temperature of the locker room, asking a few players how they would feel about having a gay teammate?

“I don’t believe that’s necessary,” Dimitroff said.

But you understand why some are addressing the issue of chemistry.

“No one knows the impact in a locker room for any acquisition until he’s in the locker room and interacting with our team,” Dimitroff said. “It doesn’t matter who that acquisition is. Period.”

Opinions vary on Sam as an NFL prospect. He was the SEC's defensive player of the year with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. But he's relatively undersized to be an NFL end (6-2, 260) and most of his production came in the first half of the season.

If Sam lasts into the late rounds, however, or isn't drafted at all, questions about tolerance and diversity in professional sports will again arise. He's a test case.

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About the Author

Jeff Schultz is a general sports columnist and blogger who isn't afraid to share his opinion, which may not necessarily jibe with yours.