This column was originally posted in The Inkwell and on it’s website.
Michael Sam is a 6-foot-2, 255 pound defensive end, that had 11.5 sacks in the 2013 college football season for the Missouri Tigers. His breakout season led to him being named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, along with helping anchor Missouri to a 12-2 record, and a Cotton Bowl victory over Oklahoma State University.
Sam is also a gay man. He’s known it for a long time, as did his coaches and teammates the whole season at Missouri. Only now he came out to The New York Times and ESPN Outside the Lines, before the NFL combine, which would make him the first openly gay player in the NFL. There have been several NFL players that have came out, but after their playing days.
The big and unfortunate question surrounding Sam now is if the NFL is ready for him thanks to the dreaded “D word.” Distraction.
After Sam announced he is gay, Sports Illustrated quoted unnamed league sources that believed Sam’s coming out would hurt his draft stock. An NFL player personnel was quoted as saying:
“I don’t think football is ready for (an openly gay player) just yet. In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a (gay slur) is still commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”
There is so much wrong with this quote and says so much about where the NFL is today. Let’s look at three major problems with this quote.
1. “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable…” Really? It will take 10 or 20 more years for the NFL to accept an openly gay player, because of his sexual orientation. The year is 2014, not 1962, when guess what… there were gay people then too. And they were probably playing football. Gay marriage is legal in 17 states, with the federal government currently giving more benefits to same-sex marriage in recent days, but for some reason it would take 10 or 20 more years for an openly gay man to play in the NFL.
2. “…it’s still a man’s-man game.” This is a true statement and always will be. What’s wrong with this part of the quote is trying to say that Sam doesn’t fit the definition of a man’s-man. Sam physically dominated linemen that were up to 60 pounds bigger than him, he made quarterbacks scared for their life, he sacrifices his body for the greater good of the team and calling him tough is an understatement. Above all, his bravery is unprecedented.
3. “It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.” The first conclusion to take away from this statement is that this man was not a science major in college. The Missouri Tigers knew Sam was gay before the season even started after he told the team at a preseason practice. They all backed him, kept his secret safe without him asking them to, and went from the second-worst team in the SEC the year before to playing in the SEC championship game. I may have squeaked by with a ‘C’ in high school chemistry, but I do know that sounds like a perfectly balanced chemical equation.
The problem lies with the media and the public, not Michael Sam. Many people have said that there is no reason for this to even be a story, but with reactions like the anonymous NFL personnel assistant, it’s clear that this is bigger than football, needs to be acknowledge and then put to rest.
Sam coming out is a work of progress and that’s how landmark events work. They all begin with individual courage to stand up and put yourself out there. If you don’t see this as a landmark moment for sports, then same-sex marriage would be legal in all 50 states and we wouldn’t have wild stereotypes that are in a different universe than those for straight people.
The distraction is not Sam’s responsibility, but the media and the public. He is not a “gay football player,” but a football player whose sexual orientation is gay. If a team and its fans want to win a championship that’s how they will see Sam. He will be a part of a brotherhood that puts the greater good of the team above all, and leaves their personal problems at the door.
Sam has no plans to be an activist, but to be a football player. Cyd Ziegler of Outsports wrote, “His role in the movement toward LGBT equality in sports will be simply playing the sport as an out gay man.” Sam has done that before and he plans to continue to. Now the NFL and Sam need to answer the biggest question: Will he be a defensive end or an outside linebacker?