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Looking for the gay-friendly football town

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 18, 2014 at 12:01 pm •  Published: April 18, 2014
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Despite an underwhelming performance at the NFL combine, former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam is garnering interest from at least six teams looking to make history by drafting the first openly gay NFL player.

The Baltimore Sun reports that the Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriotsand New York Jets have maintained contact with Sam, who is projected to be a mid-to-late-round pick. Sam is understandably uneasy when discussing his potentially trailblazing role for gay rights in sports, telling reporters at the combine in February, "I just wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player."

Unfortunately, that's not particularly realistic in today's oversaturated media climate. We could sit here and discuss Sam's value on the field: Scouts are wary of his chances of replicating his college success as a 4-3 weak-side pass rusher given his small size, figuring he'd more likely fit into the pros as a 3-4 edge rusher — once he's proven himself on special teams.

But it would be silly to pretend that Sam's sexuality wouldn't be front and center come Draft Day. His announcement that he was gay, courageous as it was, was also the primary reason he was the biggest story heading into the combine, and will continue to be the reason he shows up in headlines until he fully settles into the NFL. With that in mind, here's a look at the six teams interested in drafting Sam and the cities that might have more gay-friendly environments and fan bases:

_ Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons already have ties to the gay community: Former nose tackle Esera Tuaolo played one season in Atlanta, four years before he became the third NFL player to come out. In his autobiography, "Alone in the Trenches," Tuaolo describes the fear he felt appearing in the 1999 Super Bowl. "Not one teammate, coach or sportswriter knew I was gay," he writes. "What if one of those billion people watching recognized me as the stranger he had picked up in a gay bar?"

While Tuaolo felt this fear throughout his entire NFL career, it's hard to say things have changed much in the Falcons' home state since then. A 2013 Public Policy Polling study found that 60 percent of Georgia voters think same-sex marriage should be illegal, though it's encouraging that 72 percent are also against work discrimination based on sexual orientation. Then again, it was a Georgia state senator who tried to pass a bill that would allow businesses to refuse service to LGBT customers under the guise of "religious freedom."

Fortunately, the city of Atlanta is much more gay-friendly than the rest of its state: The Advocate named Atlanta the fifth "Gayest City in America." It hosts one of the oldest and highest attended gay pride parades in the nation. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff praised Sam's "courage" after he came out. Perhaps Atlanta, the "epicenter of the gay South," would be a perfect fit for a kid from Texas.

_ Baltimore Ravens. After Sam's announcement, several Ravens came out in support of the player. "Good for him," wide receiver Torrey Smith tweeted. "I am most impressed that Michael is so comfortable in who he is," former Baltimore linebacker and current free agent Brendon Ayanbadejo wrote.

Since last year, same-sex marriage has been legal in Maryland, which was the first state to define marriage as between a man and a woman in 1973. Last month, the state approved a bill to protect the rights of transgender individuals. As for the city, the gay scene outside of the Mount Vernon neighborhood might leave a little to be desired, but it's less than an hour away from Washington D.C. — the gayest city in the country, according to the Advocate.

_ Cleveland Browns. Browns owner Jimmy Haslam said that "absolutely we would welcome Michael Sam" to the team, adding that the organization is "intent on creating an environment that is supportive, accepting and respectful of individual rights and differences." Browns linebacker Scott Fujito echoed this sentiment, stating that "it would not be an issue" to have a gay teammate in the locker room and noting the importance for out gay athletes at the professional level so younger athletes "understand they do have support around them and that they can come out and feel comfortable." And as Yahoo's Shaun Heidrick noted in February, the team has a progressive history, having reintegrated football in 1946 by signing two black players after a long period of segregation.

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