CLEVELAND -- They're removed from playing the game, but they're not removed from the issues that affect it.
The I-X Center hosted 100 members of football royalty Saturday as part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Fun Fest, and the event continues through today.
While draft talk proved scarce, former players were aware of the issues that affect them and the league. With the 2014 NFL Draft set for this week, the league is about to be in the spotlight again. But this weekend was geared toward honoring the past and focusing on issues that affect current players.
Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who came out as gay after the college football season ended, could generate headlines if he's drafted and make history as the first openly gay active player in the NFL. After the news of his coming out broke, some speculated that the 6-foot-2, 256-pound Sam could take a hit financially, or that his presence in an NFL locker room could cause problems.
Former New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson told the story of Roy Simmons, a former Giants offensive lineman who recently died. Carson said teammates suspected that Simmons, who fought demons during and after his playing days, was gay, but said as team captain he would not have allowed anything to happen to him. After his NFL career ended, Simmons came out on The Phil Donahue Show in 1992, according to reports.
Closeted during his playing career, Simmons held a different view of what it would be like to be an openly gay player in the league.
"In the NFL," Simmons told the New York Daily News in 2006, "there is nothing worse than being gay. You can beat your wife, but you better not be gay."
Sam should not face that problem, Carson said.
"When ballplayers get together, as long as you can play the game, that's the thing," Carson said. "If you can help the team win, we have absolutely no problem. You can wear a dress or a lampshade over your head, it doesn't matter."
Former Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins player Bobby Mitchell said he also doesn't think Sam should have a problem.
"I'm not saying some nut over in the corner who just wants to be an ass won't say something, but I'll guarantee you 90 percent of the people in that room ain't going to stand for it," Mitchell said.
He expressed a pragmatic opinion, however, acknowledging that the locker room is a different kind of environment where things get said inside, but not outside.
Mitchell played for the Browns from 1958-61 and combined with the legendary Jim Brown to comprise the best running back tandem in the NFL at the time. After being traded to Washington for the rights to Ernie Davis, who later died from leukemia, he integrated that team.
Mitchell also has to contend with the fact that he's associated with a team whose name many view to be racist. He recalled sitting in then-owner George Preston Marshall's office and admiring all the pictures of Native American chiefs on the wall. Mitchell expressed an internal struggle regarding the name's use.
"When I hear the word Redskins, I still feel the same way about it as I did when I came (there) in all our glory years," he said.
But being African-American, he said he understands the arguments made by the Native American tribes who are protesting the name.
"(Redskins owner) Dan Snyder, he has to answer to it a little better than he has because things do change," he said.
(c)2014 Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)
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