Saints’ reactions to Sam mixed

Seven days before NFL draft prospect Michael Sam told the world he was gay, Saints player Jonathan Vilma said he’d be afraid to shower near a homosexual teammate.

A day after Sam came out Sunday, another Saint had the complete opposite reaction, and Vilma went on TV to “clear the air.”

“I (couldn’t) care less about someone’s sexual preference,” said a current member of the Saints, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he hadn’t been given permission by his team to talk to the media about the subject of Sam. “My check (is) still (going to) look the same.”

Vilma’s initial stance and that of his teammate’s hint at the range of emotions likely felt by members of the Saints as well as the country around them in the wake of Sam’s announcement.

The 6-foot-2, 255-pound Sam, a Missouri All-American, might become the first gay player to come out and then make the NFL. He told his teammates he was gay in August, and they supported him unequivocally, he’s said.

The rest of the U.S. didn’t react so magnanimously, even though Sam was the Southeastern Conference’s co-defensive player of the year after leading the league in sacks and tackles for loss.

Many indeed offered Sam, a defensive end, the same kind of support that his Missouri teammates did. That included two prominent lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered organizations in New Orleans.

Sebastian Rey, a lifelong Saints fan and the president of the LGBT Community Center of New Orleans, said that people shouldn’t fret about Sam’s pursuit of an NFL career unless he’s “got their quarterback in his sights.”

“His teammates didn’t care Sam was gay when he stripped the ball from (Oklahoma State quarterback Clint) Chelf,” Rey said, referring to a play that sealed a 41-31 win for Missouri in the Cotton Bowl.

Jonathan Willis — a founding member of BreakOUT!, whose mission is to protect the rights of New Orleans’ LGBT youth — said that he was an openly gay prep football and basketball player in Monroe when he had to battle through some of the challenges that likely await Sam.

Willis, 24, remembers some peers hurled slurs at him and looked at him in disgust. Yet coaches, teachers and some teammates had Willis’ back, he said. Their support convinced him he had what it took to tell the bigots, “You can do whatever you want to me — you’re not going to run me away.”

“The only thing that can stop you from doing what you want to do is you,” Willis said when asked what he’d tell Sam if he had the chance.

LGBT groups, however, were far from the only ones to stand behind Sam. Many current NFL players expressed their support for Sam on Twitter.

“I could care less about a man’s sexual preference!” Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams tweeted. “I care about winning games and being respectful in the locker room!”

Added Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith, the Super Bowl MVP: “There is no room for bigotry in American sports. It takes courage to change the culture.”

But some disagree.

Sports Illustrated quoted numerous unnamed NFL general managers, coaches and scouts, and many of them predicted Sam would either drop in the draft or simply not be chosen because, they said, the league isn’t ready for an openly gay player. The website NFL Draft Scout on Monday projected Sam to be a third- or fourth-round pick.

Sports Illustrated’s sources seem to be of a similar mind to Vilma, who told the NFL Network in a Feb. 2 interview, “I think (an openly gay player) would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted.”

He also said, “Imagine if he’s the guy next to me, and ... I get ... naked, taking a shower, ... and it just so happens he looks at me. How am I supposed to respond?”

Vilma may not have to deal with that scenario. He missed all but one game in 2013 with a knee problem. He’s 31 with a history of knee injuries and is at the end of his contract with the Saints, so some suspect he won’t re-sign with New Orleans or land elsewhere.

Vilma appeared on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 on Monday night and was less inflammatory in a panel discussion hosted by John Berman. He insisted he and everyone else in the Saints’ locker room cared only about on-field production — not anything else.

“Is he a good football player? Yes or no, that’s what we worry about.”

Rey said Vilma’s initial comments didn’t affect Sam’s significance to LGBT people.

“We’re football fans like anyone else,” Rey said. “It’s good for anyone in any community to see themselves represented positively and with strength in the media.”