Michael Sam is a football player. So is Jonathan Martin.
In recent weeks we have learned Sam, an All-SEC linebacker from Missouri, is gay. Martin, an offensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins, walked away from the team after a pattern of locker room hazing and abuse from teammates became more than he could handle.
The man behind Martin’s mistreatment was Richie Incognito, a muscle-bound, tatted poster boy of an offensive lineman in the National Football League. The kind of animal that would be caged if a locker room was a zoo.
Incognito is the man responsible for much of the abuse heaped on Martin in a misguided effort to make the big lineman tougher, according to a report by attorney Ted Wells.
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In the man’s world that is the NFL, Incognito is a man’s man. In the real world, he would not have held a job past lunch of the first day.
Martin couldn’t handle it as Incognito crossed the line of human dignity time and again, according to the independent report released last week.
But who cares, right? That happened in the sanctity of an NFL locker room. It is nowhere close to the real world.
Why does it matter that Sam is gay and Martin was bullied?
It matters because Sam is about to walk into those locker rooms with cartoon characters like Richie Incognito.
Columbus native Daryll Jones — DJ to those who know him — has been in that world. He played parts of five seasons for the Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos in the 1980s. He played in a Super Bowl. On top of that, he was a starting defensive back for Georgia’s 1980 national championship team.
“It is a sensitive issue,” Jones said of both the Sam and Martin situations. “There is a lot of immaturity in those locker rooms.”
Jones has no doubt that at some point in his career he shared a locker room with a gay guy. And he knows for certain he was in locker rooms with the Incognitos and Martins of the world.
“To me, it all comes down to if a player can help a team win,” Jones said. “I played with guys who didn’t like black players. I played with guys who didn’t like white players. There are likes and dislikes in every locker room. It is up to the leaders and the coaches to manage it.”
The mentality of a football player works against any and all perceived weaknesses. And a nice guy like Martin is a perceived weakness.
“A nice guy is not a good thing to be in a violent game,” Jones said. “A nice guy can come across as soft. You can’t play that game being a nice guy.”
Can you play it if you are gay?
Obviously Sam can and did on the college level. On Saturday, thousands stood and applauded Sam in Columbia as the Missouri football team was honored at halftime of a basketball game. He is going into the NFL under full disclosure. The NFL team that drafts him knows what they are getting when they take the man who was arguably the best defensive player in the Southeastern Conference a year ago. They are getting a player who is openly gay. And they have the advantage of knowing it before they select him.
Jones, who is now part of the Georgia football broadcasting network, saw Sam and his Missouri defense defeat Georgia back in October and said he would have no issue playing on the same team as Sam.
But he knows it is not going to be easy for some others.
“Back in the 1970s and ’80s we didn’t talk about stuff like that,” Jones said. “Not only did we not talk about it, we didn’t think about it. The way I look at it, Michael Sam is going to work. He is not going into that locker room to see who he can pick up.”
Jones knows that not everyone will have that feeling.
“These guys today are going to keep silent,” Jones said. “You are already starting to see that. They don’t want to get fined, suspended or lose their jobs if they can’t conform.”
Sam didn’t destroy the locker room culture at Missouri last year as the Tigers won the SEC Eastern Division. Apparently Sam’s college teammates and many in Columbia have known for a while what the rest of us just found out.
It wasn’t a big deal at Missouri and shouldn’t be a big deal elsewhere. But it likely will be. That’s because of meatheads like Incognito and their warped view of what a man and a football player should be. Sure, Incognito posted a tweet a week ago in support of Sam. But it is the attitude that led Incognito to destroy Martin that could lead to the mistreatment of an openly gay player.
An NFL team that respects itself and the process will draft or sign Sam.
We are about to see what the NFL values — guys like Richie Incognito or athletes like Sam and Martin.
“It is going to interesting,” Jones said.