Veterans say Sam’s personal life need not disrupt team unity

INDIANAPOLIS — Peripheral elements elevate the NFL scouting combine to a full-blown convention. Meetings between team executives and agents in hotel bars, fraternization among coaches, and the famous shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo’s Steak House provide the spice.

At its core, though, this has been about football. The league’s annual pilgrimage centers on evaluating which college players possess the skill and talent to thrive in a cutthroat league.

So the football flow halted Saturday when former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam conducted his first news conference since announcing on Feb. 9 that he is gay.

The spectacle itself, which lasted 12{ minutes, was as remarkable as what Sam said. He spoke in front of a standing-room-only crowd of reporters, similar to the one that attended former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s media session last year and those of quarterbacks Cam Newton and Tim Tebow in previous winters.

Though Sam’s personal revelation has nothing to do with his ability to play football, during the predraft process he will be under the particular scrutiny of football men here to evaluate whether he can help their respective teams win.

Many general managers will ask whether Sam’s presence would cause a distraction to their teams.

Distraction is a catch-all term, in this instance perhaps synonymous with media circus. No player wants that attached to his evaluation. Such a warning of negativity, dysfunction and failure might as well come with ominous music and a thunderstorm.

Although “distraction” is a bit of a nebulous concept, NFL players maintain it’s a real threat to winning. They link distractions to intense media attention. And in a league characterized by parity, any negative stimulus to a team’s collective focus or energy level could be a significant detriment.

“This kid is going to garner a lot of attention,” veteran Bears guard Matt Slauson said. “Whatever team ends up getting him, I think it would be in their best interest to not feed into that at all because then it will become a distraction. It can really breed a kind of cancerous atmosphere around a team.”

Potential distractions exist in every NFL organization, and some clubs manage them better than others. Doing so is as necessary to a team’s success as inflating footballs properly for practice.

In 2009 and 2010, after the Vikings signed Brett Favre to be their quarterback, it seemed as though a circus organ was providing the team’s soundtrack on a loop.

Linebacker Chad Greenway knew something extraordinary had happened the day Favre arrived.

Greenway was in the cafeteria at team headquarters eating lunch with starting quarterback Sage Rosenfels. On the TV above, a local news broadcast was documenting Favre’s arrival with a helicopter following the SUV he was riding in from the airport to the very building in which Greenway sat.

“You’re glued to the TV watching this bizarre, surreal deal,” Greenway told the Chicago Tribune this week. “Then suddenly it’s right outside your back door. You turn around, and here they were pulling in right to where you were sitting. You realize right from that moment that, ‘Holy cow, this is going to be a big deal.’ “

Suddenly, the Vikings faced a tsunami of new interest and the challenge of riding that wave without drowning in it.

“It’s all the attention all the time,” Greenway said. “You can’t turn any sports program on without seeing some sort of update on your team. When you’re in it, it sort of becomes your norm. But when you’re done with that circus and you have the opportunity to pull away from it, you begin to realize how much more of a strain it created than you acknowledged as you were experiencing it.”

A distracted team still shows up to play on Sundays, but the impairments are clear to the affected players. In a league that demands physical and mental excellence, depleted energy and focus can be the difference between winning and losing.

In Favre’s first season, the quarterback’s Pro Bowl production mitigated any fatigue that the increased media crush created. The Vikings came within a whisker of reaching the Super Bowl, energized by his presence and the buzz that surrounded the team.

The next year, however, they skidded to 10 losses with the swollen media horde chronicling every ounce of the odd drama and dysfunction that suffocated the season.

Greenway wouldn’t characterize the nonstop coverage as a distraction necessarily. It was more of an annoyance and an energy drain.

“It becomes nauseating at times because you’re trying to focus on your job and helping the team win,” he said. “And it can create a diversion if you don’t keep a focus on what’s really important. There is a drain to that.”

Redskins tight end Logan Paulsen found it cumbersome to withstand the barrage of questioning from family, friends and strangers during two of the particularly dysfunctional episodes of his four seasons with the team.

“It’s like this psychological weight,” Paulsen told the Tribune this week. “You might not even acknowledge it, but it’s there. It just kind of looms over you. (Team decision-makers) don’t want that. They just want you to be able to kind of freely exist in this football universe, if that makes sense.”

During Paulsen’s first training camp in 2010, defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth feuded with coach Mike Shanahan. The intense media coverage included TV reporters’ farcical attempts at the conditioning test Haynesworth repeatedly failed.

Then last season, the Redskins came unhinged and finished 3-13 as Shanahan’s relationship with quarterback Robert Griffin III devolved. Redskins players during the unraveling received text messages from team officials cautioning them about media interactions. Players still went about their routines, but the tension and atmosphere created a negative work environment.

“It just has this toxicity that then consumes the team, the individual,” Paulsen said.

Keys to mitigating impact

That’s not to say the team that drafts Sam should expect a negative outcome from the media attention he’s sure to attract.

“Let’s say we brought him here to Chicago,” Slauson said. “I think we could eliminate that distraction based on how the organization handles it.”

From personal experience, he believes the keys are clear organizational vision, strong coaching and veteran leadership.

As a member of the Jets in 2012, his team wilted under the weight of attention the media paid Tebow, who was a reserve quarterback. Slauson criticized how the Jets handled Tebow’s status amid starter Mark Sanchez’s struggles and injury, saying the club “would kind of feed the flames.”

“They could have said, ‘He’s our Wildcat guy,’ and ‘He’s an athlete,’ and just put it to bed,” Slauson told the Tribune. “But … they never came out and said that. They always kept thinking, ‘OK, the media is kind of going with this quarterback thing, so we’ll let them kind of continue to do that,’ when Mark (Sanchez) was struggling and Mark got banged up. Everyone was speculating, ‘Well, is Tebow going to start now?’ And that shouldn’t have even been speculated about.”

Tebow threw eight passes that season and spent last year out of the league, an example of teams’ aversion to any possible distraction.

In contrast to that breakdown with the Jets, Slauson applauded how the Bears endured the media debate last season about whether backup quarterback Josh McCown or starter Jay Cutler should have played when Cutler returned from an ankle injury that sidelined him for four games.

As McCown played at a high level into December, the possibility of a divided locker room surfaced.

“I know a lot of players were kind of concerned about that situation because that was a very delicate, fragile time when it could drive a wedge,” Slauson said. “But because Josh is such an incredible man, he knew where he stood. He knew his role, and he made sure to continue to voice that after every game and every practice. That really helped eliminate that distraction there.”

Slauson also credited coach Marc Trestman for his awareness of the potentially divisive issue and asserting early on that Cutler would remain the starter. Nevertheless, Trestman still contended with questions about McCown’s status despite his steadfast stance.

Bears general manager Phil Emery said he worries less about how a potential media crush a player like Te’o or Sam draws might distract an entire team than he does about how the player himself is equipped to cope with something so new and extraordinary.

“I see it as an adjustment for them to the amount of coverage they’re suddenly getting,” Emery said. “For any rookie, regardless of where they come into the league from, if you come into Chicago or into New York, it’s a major adjustment.

“So can they re-learn to adjust to the level, the quality and the depth of the attention to be able to focus on what their job is? From my seat, you want to know what their maturity level is. And that widely varies from prospect to prospect.”

“Certainly, you’d expect the gay and lesbian community to take a special interest in how he’s doing, which will keep that story alive. But it will hopefully have a positive light and it may be able to promote a lot of good things for the NFL and make us look a lot less barbaric if this all can be handled professionally, which in my estimation is what’s going to happen.”

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