“I’m not afraid to tell the world who I am. I’m Michael Sam: I’m a college graduate. I’m African American, and I’m gay. I’m comfortable in my skin.”
For years, questions about openly gay athletes were debated quietly in locker rooms and front offices. How would a gay athlete be perceived by teammates? How would the media and fans react? Now, Michael Sam has changed the narrative and compelled the sports world to shine the spotlight back on itself.
Sam is taking a bold step toward breaking down one of the remaining discriminatory barriers in pro sports, and he will be under particularly intense scrutiny as he attempts to make a name for himself in the NFL. But by owning his story and coming out before his pro career even starts, Sam is putting the onus on the league to prove that it upholds the values of fairness and opportunity that it claims as its ethos.
Sam will be the first openly gay male athlete to participate in one of the country’s four major team sports. The “male” and “major” are important distinctions, because we have had openly gay athletes competing at the highest levels for years, from tennis stars Martina Navratilova and Amélie Mauresmo to basketball player Sheryl Swoopes.
Yet gay male athletes in American team sports have remained closeted. When NBA player Jason Collins came out last spring, he was at the end of his career and without a contract. He has not played professionally since his announcement.
Sam’s story is also unique because his sexual orientation was not a secret. His Missouri teammates not only embraced him, they also enjoyed one of the finest seasons in school history. A 6-foot, 2-inch, 260-pound defensive end, Sam led the Southeastern Conference in sacks and was named co–Defensive Player of the Year in what is regarded as the best college football conference in the country.
While a star in college, Sam is considered a decent but hardly great pro prospect. Before his announcement, most draft analysts had him pegged as a mid-round pick. The survival rate of players chosen in that range is basically 50-50.
The NFL likes to consider itself a meritocracy, and it has a policy against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Careers are short, stakes are high, and there’s room for anyone who can help a team win. At least that’s what is said publicly.
Already there have been executives who told Sports Illustrated, anonymously of course, that Sam’s announcement will hurt his draft stock. In language that sounded distressingly like the tone used by baseball owners in the 1940s who refused to allow black players into the major leagues, they cited the potential for distraction and wondered whether the NFL was ready for an openly gay athlete. Both concerns are simply updated versions of an old con.
Most pro teams have become adept at handling so-called media distractions. Just last year, a YouTube video surfaced of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper shouting racial epitaphs at a concert. Closer to home, the New England Patriots dealt with the incarceration of star tight end Aaron Hernandez on murder charges. In both instances, the media scrutiny was intense for a brief period of time and then dissipated.
As for Sam’s peers, reaction from players around the league has been mixed, but generally positive. Players in all sports have had gay teammates, a fact many athletes acknowledge. If Sam can produce on the field, he will find acceptance in most, if not all, corners of the locker room.
The locker room has long held an odd fascination with the general public as one of the few places in American life where people from completely different backgrounds share such an intimate workspace. But that’s all it is: a workspace.
As a hard-hitting defensive force, Sam has the potential to change many of the stereotypes surrounding gay athletes, and there is a lot riding on his career. But it would be a mistake to think he will be the last openly gay athlete. The world is already changing, and the real question is whether the people who run pro sports can keep up with it.
Paul Flannery (COM’97), a College of Communication sports journalism lecturer, can be reached at email@example.com.
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