COLUMBIA - Steve Spurrier has watched football's transformation over the decades, mostly on the field.
The game is always changing. It evolves with the times. Leather helmets faded. The forward pass yielded higher-scoring offenses. Always, football moves forward, even when social issues are at the heart of its evolution.
So when another watershed moment came last month with former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam announcing he is gay, the Head Ball Coach was not surprised. Like most, Spurrier took the historic announcement in stride.
"My thoughts are like everyone's already said. It's a new world nowadays, and we all accept people for whoever they are," Spurrier said. "If we get a female kicker who can kick 55-yard field goals, we'll welcome her and it wouldn't matter who they are, what race, what sexuality. In our world, we treat people by their performance. That's what we would try to do if it were to ever happen here."
Sam is hoping to become the first openly gay NFL player after announcing his sexual orientation last month in interviews with ESPN and the New York Times. The reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year helped lead Missouri to an SEC East title and Cotton Bowl victory last season. Sam led the nation's premier conference with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss.
Former South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore said he was "shocked" when he heard Sam's announcement, but he offered his full support.
Lattimore, now with the San Francisco 49ers, believes some players may struggle to embrace Sam. Inside an NFL locker room, he said Sam would receive varying levels of acceptance.
"I think it'd be mixed emotions," Lattimore said. "Some would accept it, some would not. What it all comes down to is if he can help the team, and everybody knows that. Everybody in the locker room knows that. That's all that matters, really. It would be mixed. Some would like it, some would not like it. I think it would be 50-50.
"Everything I heard about him, he's a good person. He plays the game the right way, and I know he'll go on and be great because you see what he did this year at Missouri."
Sam made his announcement in February, but he told his Missouri teammates before last season began. From all accounts, the star defensive end was instantly embraced. There was no discrimination within the Tigers locker room, which only aided team chemistry during one of the greatest seasons in program history.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he would accept a gay player on his team. If one of Swinney's players wanted to come out to his teammates, he would offer his support.
"I think everybody has to be who they are," Swinney said. "It would be very unfair for me, if I have a gay player on my team, to tell him, 'Well, you can't be gay.' Just like it'd be unfair for him to tell me, 'Well, you can't be a Christian.' You have to respect one another."
At the NFL Combine last month, Sam told reporters he sensed no change in his teammates after his announcement. They continued to treat him as a brother, as any other football player.
Former Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd said there would be no problem accepting a gay teammate inside his college locker room, even in a socially conservative area of the country.
"I don't think it would have been a big deal," Boyd said. "It's different because of the state we're in. We're in a Southern state. Some people might have perceived it a little different, but if you can go out there and win games, I'm all for it. I know Michael Sam, got a chance to build a relationship with him. He's a good dude, great person, great player. Whatever team he goes to, I think he's going to be an asset to them.
"In this lifetime, you've got to be open-minded a little bit. Obviously, it's a little different because this is more of a masculine sport. This isn't tennis or anything like that. So people's perceptions change a little bit, but it doesn't change him as a player."
At the Combine, Sam said he wanted to be known simply as a football player, not for the choices made in his private life. It's a fair request, one any professional would make in any profession.
Sam believes he'll get his chance. When he was at the Senior Bowl, he said no teams asked him about being gay. Maybe it's because the forward pass did yield higher-scoring offenses, and Sam was the best pass rusher in the SEC.
"If you put me in a situation to get the quarterback, I'm going to get the quarterback," Sam said matter-of-factly at the Combine. ". This league is a passing league. I'd like to believe in myself as a good pass rusher."
Aaron Brenner contributed to this report.
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