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College Football Players Are Creating a New Culture of Acceptance

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In college football, the coach calls the plays. The coach sets the daily tempo, and the coach makes every critical decision within the program.

But today in college football, the players are the ones creating a new environment.

This past weekend, 256 college football players' dreams came true, as they were drafted into the National Football League. But pick number 249 was especially noteworthy -- Michael Sam is the first openly gay athlete to be drafted in the history of the NFL. When he received the phone call from St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, Sam processed his feelings in real time, with an authenticity rarely captured on screen.

We watched as tears streamed down his face. We watched him kiss his boyfriend. We even retweeted his message.

Most likely, we also thought about someone we know who is gay.

A football novice can tell you that Sam is anything but a lock to make the Rams roster this fall and it is even more obvious that the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year will be a major storyline followed by every media outlet in the nation, let alone around the world (e.g.: Jason Collins).

But a fan cannot tell you about the real change that is happening at a rapid rate in the locker room on college campuses across the nation.

As a lifelong athlete, I've been working within intimate college football settings for almost 15 years, while getting to know coaches and student-athletes extremely well.

Dating back to my time as a wide receiver at the University of Pittsburgh, an assistant coach at USC, and most recently, an analyst at Fox, ESPN and the Pac-12 Networks, I have witnessed the steady decline of homophobia in locker rooms around the country.

Yes, it has been amazing to read about the dozens of student-athletes who have come out over the past year, including three college football players. And of course nothing makes me happier than hearing a coach ban homophobic slurs in the locker room.

But what has gone unreported is the acceptance within those locker rooms toward the countless number of gay student-athletes who have yet to make the front page.

And this movement has started from the ground up.

Teammates are now consciously open to the truth that the locker next to theirs may belong to a gay man -- and they don't flinch. This is a 180-degree turn from only a few years ago.

Following their players' lead, coaches now recognize that members of their roster are gay, and these players may be struggling with the process of accepting who they are, let alone asking teammates and fans to accept them. The head coaches of 105 young men are offering support and guidance to everyone involved, and they are re-defining what it means to be a 'coach.'

What is happening across the country in college football may not get the coverage that the drafting of Michael Sam received, but it is a bigger story. And it is happening on campuses each day, as student-athletes are making active choices to support a gay teammate rather than default to what perception has been.

Sooner than later, more college football players will come out, and the idea of a gay man playing one of the most competitive sports in the U.S. will no longer rate a headline. Eventually it will be a non-story. And the term 'openly gay' can be retired because it has become irrelevant.

Coaches, who strive to get their players to maximize their potential, understand that a student-athlete must first accept who he is. He must then state that affirmation and be supported in his quest to achieve it.

A quest that Michael Sam made a little easier for the next gay college football player.

A path that the players in locker rooms around the nation are making much smoother.

A pilgrimage that coaches are supporting ... this time, by following.

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