- Scott Brown, ESPN Pittsburgh Steelers reporter
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PITTSBURGH -- Former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis and free safety Ryan Clark each said the time is right for an openly gay player in the NFL after Missouri defensive end Michael Sams' announcement Sunday that he is gay.
"For him to make it public that he is gay, the key word is he knows who he is and he's comfortable with who he is," Bettis said on ESPN's "SportsCenter" on Sunday night. "I think that sends the message that it is OK and I think that's what everyone needs to take from that. It is OK that he is gay and wants to play football in the NFL."
Bettis estimated that 90 to 95 percent of NFL players will welcome Sam.
"I think this is the perfect opportunity for the NFL to now make this a point to communicate to every NFL team now you have to understand, now you have to bring these players to this moment," Bettis said.
Sam told ESPN and the New York Times on Sunday that he will attempt to become the first openly gay player to play in the NFL after a decorated career in which he earned All-American honors as a senior and was the SEC's co-Defensive Player of the Year.
"If he's willing to put his hand in the pile and be a part of the solution to winning a championship and winning football games, then guys will accept him," Clark said on "SportsCenter" in a phone in interview.
Sam's acknowledgement comes less than two weeks before the start of the NFL scouting combine where he will easily be the biggest story.
Clark said one thing teams will have to gauge while evaluating Sam is how he will be received in the locker room.
"The one thing we know about NFL locker room and NFL teams is it's the ultimate team sport and you want that camaraderie, you want that chemistry," said Clark, a two-time Steelers captain. "I think before he steps into a locker room people will talk to leaders in the locker room, leaders on their team to see how do they plan to accept him as a teammate."
Rookies are not always well received by veteran players. In the case of Sam, that could lead to questions of whether some players are aloof toward him because he is a rookie or because he is gay.
"This is the thing people have to understand about NFL locker rooms: It's a lot of ornery veterans," Clark said. "There's a lot of veterans that don't like talking to rookies. There's a lot of veterans that don't really mingle with guys coming in playing their positions or guys they feel like haven't earned their spots. So we've had situations where there are veterans that don't talk to the young guys or that don't necessarily accept them until they've proven themselves in certain ways.
"I think what we have to be very careful about is making sure that if a guy doesn't come out and say he's in full support just knowing he's not in opposition. Just understanding that for a lot of guys it's going to take some time to get used to that has never been through this situation. For us, it's about being patient with the whole process and allowing the guy to play football."
Bettis said he expects that to happen no matter which team Sam makes history with as the first openly gay player in the NFL.
"You're always going to have one or two guys that feel strongly in a different capacity but that's going to be in any situation you deal with," Bettis said. "You understand that and hope those players allow him to be in that locker room and give him the respect he deserves being in the locker room."