Sam didn't divide locker room

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The news is not that Missouri All-American defensive end Michael Sam is gay. The news is that when he told his teammates in August, it so tore apart the locker room that the Tigers won the SEC East.

That has always been one of the arguments. A gay teammate would be unwelcome in the locker room and definitely in the showers. A gay teammate would cause division, make teammates feel uncomfortable.

Except that Sam didn't. An openly gay player at Missouri turned out to be a bonfire in want of a spark. His teammates nodded, and they moved on. There really was nothing to see here.

That alone speaks to the power of generational change. Missouri, the flagship public university in a red state, made itself hospitable to an openly gay football player. In 1973, the University of Missouri Board of Curators decided not to recognize a student group, Gay Lib, that proposed to serve as a forum for homosexuality. The board appointed a well-respected attorney to establish the facts of the case. Among those "facts":

• Homosexuality is a compulsive type of behavior.
• What happens to a latent or potential homosexual from the standpoint of his environment can cause him to become or not to become a homosexual.
• That homosexuality is an illness and should and can be treated as such and is clearly abnormal behavior.

The university denied recognition. Four years later, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the university must recognize Gay Lib on First Amendment grounds.

"Apparently," Darrell Napton, a plaintiff in the case and now a professor at South Dakota State, said Sunday night, "there has been a lot of change in the last few decades. That has been true all over the country."

Napton couldn't speak to what gay life was like at Missouri four decades ago. He isn't gay. He signed onto the case on First Amendment grounds. But really, we've read this story before. Gays will foment problems in the locker room, as African-Americans would before them, as Jews would in country clubs, as Catholics would if elected to office. The "facts" that back up such assertions wilt when exposed to sunlight.

The baseball team in St. Louis, Missouri's second-largest city, allegedly wanted to boycott the National League rather than play against Jackie Robinson. Less than two decades later, led by future Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Lou Brock, the Cardinals won the World Series. It is ancient history now, but the barriers in the locker room didn't come down easily.

We live in a different time. The Missouri players already knew Michael Sam, and respected him, and loved him the way that teammates can love one another. What revolution he fomented in coming out to his teammates and coaches occurred from within.

Sam attended a Missouri that has changed. Nearly four decades after the Gay Lib case, the Missouri athletic director reminded everyone Sunday night that the university theme is "One Mizzou." Gary Pinkel, the head coach, said, "We talk all the time here in our program about how one of our core values is to respect the cultural differences of others, and this certainly applies."

Not every transition will proceed as smoothly as at Missouri last season, when 105 players and an entire staff kept their mouths shut and huddled together to protect one of their own. Sam responded with a season worthy of being named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Surely the peace of mind he found among teammates who accepted him contributed to his play.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I have a hunch Missouri isn't out of the norm. Tolerance is taught in public schools across the country, and it turns out that the students are paying attention. The rest of us are coming along, too. Missouri associate athletic director Chad Moller said he received perhaps a half dozen media inquiries about Sam's sexual orientation. None of the outlets wanted to expose Sam. Everyone wanted the story.

"It was all very respectful," Moller said.

The NFL scouts and executives who asked if Sam has a girlfriend grew up in a different time. While there have been NFL players who have spoken out against sharing a locker room with a gay teammate, they will say a lot less once it's clear that their attitude is not socially acceptable.

The Missouri Tigers proved last season that a gay man can play football, and attend meetings, and lift weights and, yes, even shower with his teammates and no one will be the worse for wear. The revolution isn't coming. It's already here. As it turns out, it's not that big of a deal.

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