Every NFL rookie gets teased by teammates, who usually aim for the easiest target — his hometown, his alma mater, his weight, his clothes, his haircut. It's a rite of passage, a bonding experience, and most veterans know how not to cross the line.
Sometimes a player can feel things go too far, such as Jonathan Martin, the offensive lineman who left the Miami Dolphins after a cafeteria prank in October and leveled allegations of long-running abuse by teammate Richie Incognito and others.
Now, just as an NFL-backed investigation into workplace conduct with the Dolphins is about to be released, Missouri All-America defensive end Michael Sam's announcement that he is gay raises a new question: would it be OK for teammates to joke about that?
"One hundred percent, and Michael welcomes that," former NFL defensive back Wade Davis, who came out as gay after his playing career ended, told USA TODAY Sports on Monday.
"I think what people don't realize is that with being out (of the closet) for an entire year, he's already gone through that with the exact same guys who are going to be in the NFL. It's not like he hasn't experienced it."
Davis is the executive director of the LGBT sports organization You Can Play and was at Sam's coming out party Saturday night.
So was former NFL punter Chris Kluwe, who is not gay and agreed with Davis that Sam's success on a Mizzou team that played in the SEC championship game last season is proof that potential locker room problems are overblown.
"All his teammates knew he was gay," Kluwe said of Sam, who projects as a fourth- to seventh-round draft pick. "He came out to the team, and they had a phenomenal year. The players by and large don't care, because they're there to play football."
How to respond?
Yet, they know, some NFL teammate is bound to crack wise about Sam's sexual orientation, whether from a place of disapproval or just trying to get the rookie's goat. It might happen to Sam's face or make its way through the media.
It'll be up to Sam how he chooses to respond, knowing his actions might have an impact on every other athlete thinking about following his lead as the NFL's first openly gay player.
"The thing that we're missing is that Michael's going to protect those players. He's not going to go out and say, 'Oh, someone called me something offensive,'" said Davis, who began mentoring Sam at the behest of his friend, NFL executive and former player Troy Vincent.
"He understands he not only has to protect himself, but protect his teammates, protect them so when one of them does say something that the world may deem inappropriate, he knows that it's just something a brother would say.
"There are ultimately things that my sister or my cousin say to me that the rest of the world would be like, 'Wow, that's really awful.' But there's a camaraderie and a fellowship that you have amongst teams, and Michael understands that."
In other words, Sam is not likely to respond similarly to Martin, which might ease the minds of the veterans who end up dealing with an unprecedented situation in their locker room — but want to make sure every rookie, including Sam, is put in his place nonetheless.
"You're going to joke on them. You're going to make them do little things. And the more they're accepting and the more they roll with the punches is the better, because you fit right in better," Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams told USA TODAY Sports.
"I don't see (being openly gay) being a problem. Guys are going to joke with you, and if you're able to take a joke, play around, mess around, the better it'll be."
Last month, Kluwe wrote a scathing post for Deadspin accusing the Vikings of cutting him over his public stance in support of gay marriage and calling for the firing of special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, whom Kluwe accused of making homophobic remarks.
That triggered a team-requested investigation that remains ongoing, less than a year after the NFL issued a sexual orientation anti-discrimination and harassment policy — not that it'll stop teams from pushing Sam to open up about his lifestyle at next week's NFL scouting combine.
"That's one of the things I talked to Mike about was, this is going to be something that teams are going to look at," Kluwe said. "They're going to press you. They're going to try to put you in uncomfortable situations, because they want to see, will you hold up under this pressure?"
Lots of scrutiny
That pressure will only grow now, given that Sam has set up his career as a litmus test for openly gay athletes' ability to assimilate into major American pro sports.
"There has been a lot of talk about the locker room, and I think that's a reliance on an outdated stereotype," said Sarah Kate Ellis, president of the advocacy organization GLAAD.
"I remember hearing that argument when 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was being debated, and we can see now first-hand that gay service members who can serve openly are only helping the military and it hasn't been an issue."
Sam's publicist, Howard Bragman, said the plan from now until the NFL draft in May is to keep media exposure to a minimum and focus on football. Discussions with the league about how to manage the inevitable media crunch at the combine are ongoing.
The NFL issued a statement Sunday night in support of Sam, and numerous owners and general managers followed suit Monday, all saying he'll be evaluated only for his skill set.
"Our sport, our game, is the ultimate meritocracy," New York Giants president and chief executive officer John Mara said. "You earn your way with your ability."
Several other prospects in this year's draft offered their support.
"Personally, if I'm an NFL veteran and we draft a guy, regardless of his sexuality, my biggest thing is: 'Can you play football?' And I've never been a person in my life who has judged someone on whether they liked men or women," said Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, projected as a first-round pick.
To Davis, Sam going through a typical experience within the locker room is the only way to prepare everyone for the reality that he is surely just the first of many openly gay players to come.
"He's going to have to go through his trials, only because he's a rookie and veterans cannot stand rookies," Davis said. "But as far as his sexuality, no one's really going to care because he can play."
"One or two players may say something stupid. But players' fears are real, and if we don't talk about them open and honestly, how can we ever grow from it and move forward? There are real reasons why these players aren't out. If we can't talk about those reasons, how can we make any type of substantive growth?"