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 Sunday.
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 is 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, he held a different view about 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 in 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 tandems in the NFL at the time. After being traded to Washington for the rights to Ernie Davis, who would later die 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 there is reality. Being African-American, he said he understands the arguments made by the Native American tribes who are protesting the use of the name.
“[Redskins owner] Dan Snyder, he has to answer to it a little better than he has because things do change,” he said.
A little Manziel talk
Former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jack Ham sounds like a fan of Johnny Manziel and his style. Ham thinks the 5-foot-11 Texas A&M quarterback would be good for the NFL.
“He makes plays. He’ll extend plays like [Seattle’s Russell] Wilson would do. He has a lot of confidence in what he can get done. He’s made a lot of big plays late in the game … For the NFL, it’s great having a guy like that coming into the league,” Ham said.
But as much as he complimented Manziel, he said that his first choice at the quarterback would be the University of Central Florida’s Blake Bortles.
On the NCAA
Another former Steeler, running back Franco Harris, spoke with reporters about his college days and had some pointed words for the NCAA regarding their rules.
Harris said as a college football player at Penn State University he received a small — very small — stipend, but could sell his game tickets. Neither is allowed under current NCAA bylaws.
“It looks like all they did through time is take, take, take, take, take,” he said of the NCAA, “and did not really look at the situation of players, the background of players and to really help in that sort of way.”
In an era with TV contracts worth billions of dollars, Harris said the organization has lost its way.
Ham and Harris both shared Cleveland-related memories.
When asked whether the league is diluting games with new rules, he said that it makes sense to protect the NFL’s star players. Not surprisingly, he mentioned the hit on his quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, that remains the greatest in Cleveland Browns history.
“Turkey Jones would be in jail for a couple of years I think [under these rules],” he said. “The game’s got to evolve. You’ve got to keep your star players as healthy as you can and quarterbacks upright for the season. I’m sure Bradshaw is still twitching. I saw him last night. He wishes that he had those rules back when he played.”
Harris extolled the virtues of Steelers fandom before being asked if he realized where he was.
“Yes, in Cleveland,” he said, “and I have to admit the weather in Cleveland, the hospitality has been great and Cleveland was good to us. I can’t complain.”
Yes, he was referring to those great Steelers teams of the ’70s beating the Browns.
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Zips blog at www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/abj.sports.