Vince Lombardi did not tolerate prejudice of any kind during his 10 seasons as a head coach in the NFL. / Green Bay Press-Gazette photo
Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, was ahead of his time.
When he became coach of the team in the NFL’s smallest city, one that had very few African-American residents, Lombardi made it clear he would not tolerate racism.
Lombardi made sure his assistants wouldn’t make judgments based on race, and he told players they’d be thrown off the team if they showed signs of prejudice.
He made it known to owners of restaurants and taverns in Green Bay that if black players weren’t served, those places would be off limits to the entire Packers organization.
“Right from the start, he treated us as equals, just players competing for a spot on the team,” Willie Davis, a defensive end who helped Lombardi win five NFL championships, wrote in his book, “Closing The Gap.”
“He chose not to see color in an era where most chose to look the other way in terms of blacks. It was as if he felt the best way to fix the problem of segregation and racism in the league was to actually pretend it didn’t exist — at least to us.”
When Lombardi left Green Bay to coach the Washington Redskins in 1969 for one season before his death in 1970, he was aware that tight end Jerry Smith was gay. Lombardi had a gay brother, and he privately told Smith his sexuality didn’t matter.
Smith, who had been in the NFL for four seasons, had his best year in 1969, making the All-Pro team.
The point of all of this is that leadership on NFL teams will determine whether or not a locker room can tolerate players who are openly gay. Michael Sam, a talented defensive tackle for Missouri, announced Sunday he is gay. He will be eligible for the NFL draft in May.
Other athletes may choose to follow Sam’s brave decision in the coming weeks. Most NFL teams probably had meetings Monday about the issue. Coaches and general managers most likely took a very close look at the makeup of their rosters. Do they have players that can be accepting of a gay teammate or not?
There will be organizations that have already planned for this, that will do everything humanly possible to make sure that an anti-gay stance won’t be tolerated by anyone associated with the team. Some teams may decide privately they aren’t ready to have an openly gay man on the team.
Any team that signs a gay player will have to deal with intense media scrutiny, especially with today’s 24/7 coverage of sports. A gay athlete in an NFL locker room will have to listen to endless questions asking how he is being treated by teammates. Straight players will be asked over and over what is it like having a gay player on the team.
Let’s face it. There are players who can’t stand the notion of lining up with or across from someone who has a sexual relationship with another man.
Commissioner Roger Goddell has a gay brother, one he protected from bullies. He’ll need to be a leader and let teams and players know that anti-gay behavior won’t be acceptable.
Sam should be drafted because he’s too good of a player not to be. The hope is that if and when he joins a team he’ll be treated fairly and judged solely on how he plays the game.
It’s how Lombardi, the greatest coach in the history of football, dealt with players.
This is the opinion of sports editor Bob Berghaus. Reach him at 232-5866 or email@example.com