Earlier this week Missouri Linebacker, SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, and NFL Prospect Michael Sam Jr., made a public announcement that rocked the sports world. Michael Sam announced that he was a “proud gay man.” While it’s 2014, and seemingly everyone has friends of all races, ethnicities and sexual orientations, it’s still a big deal that he made this announcement. It’s a big deal because of the time he announced it, right before the NFL draft. It’s a big deal because of the sport he plays, football is known as a “mans game”. Most importantly, however, it’s a big deal because we’ve yet to have an openly gay athlete actively playing in one of our four major professional sporting leagues. (the NFL, NBA, NHL, or MLB) While I am a liberal dude from the north east, where having gay friends and co-workers isn’t just common, it’s become the norm, I am still realistic about the feelings of people throughout the rest of the country who aren’t nearly as progressive. This again, makes this announcement all the more important.
With that being said, I’ve put some real thought into this topic and wanted to offer 5 points of commentary on the subject:
1. It’s about damn time: Honestly, I feel bad that it has taken this long. When you take into account that national averages have the gay male population somewhere between 8-10% of the total US male population, it’s absolutely inevitable that there are dozens if not a couple hundred gay athletes currently competing in major pro-sports. In fact, according to LZ Granderson, a very well respected sports columnist for ESPN and CNN, there are tons of gay athletes currently playing on pro sports teams, but they just haven’t felt fully comfortable going public with it. That’s an absolute shame. Not that people should have to make public statements about their sexuality, but they shouldn’t have to hide it either. Having to hide things about yourself can be an amazing burden to carry and that burden can dramatically effect ones performance on the field. It’s a shame that no one has felt comfortable enough to come out before now. It is absolutely no different from the days when Jewish athletes had to hide their religion for fear of anti-semitism, and how stupid does that sound now? While people like Jason Collins have definitely opened the door for someone like Michael Sam to come out, we must still realize the strength it took for Sam, a 21 year old, to make this decision while still actively competing. Or should we say about to actively compete as a pro.
2. This WILL impact his draft position: The 6’2″, 255 lb Sam, was already listed as a “tweener” before he came out. This means he was a player that was a bit small for the DE position and a bit slow for the OLB position. Kiper had him graded as a mid 3rd round to early 4th round pick, and it’s not uncommon for “tweeners” like this to fall a round or two even without his announcement. However, I truly believe, that his decision to come out before the draft will almost certainly effect his draft stock; but I’m not sure it will be in the form of dropping. An article earlier this week on SI said a host of GM’s wouldn’t want to draft Sam because of all the baggage that comes with him being the first openly gay athlete. I’m going to give those GM’s the benefit of the doubt that they are not homophobes. I believe it just means they believe there is a potential media circus (think Tim Tebow) that could follow Sam around (which is not his fault nor is it in his control), and they’d want to avoid it. However, for all those worried GM’s, I believe there may be a GM, coach or owner, who could snag Sam in the 2nd round specifically because of this kids toughness. Sam isn’t just tough because of his ability to handle the public nature of his sexual orientation, he had an unbelievably difficult childhood as covered by the NY Times. I think a specific type of coach, like Jim Harbaugh, who took an injured Marcus Lattimore rounds early because he felt he deserved it, could take put a premium on Sam’s mental toughness and take him early. Let’s also not forget that this dude was the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, in a conference that also featured potential number 1 pick, Jadaveon Clowney.
3. The locker room will be a non-issue: For people who are worried about Michael Sam falling victim to abuse in the locker room due to his sexuality, I really think this is ridiculous. First off, the majority of the NFL is under the age of 28. They have grown up with gay friends, gay family members, and gay co-workers. Seriously, to anyone under 30 it’s just not that big of a deal. Second, by all accounts, there are other gay athletes in NFL locker rooms and the team know who they are. But much like Missouri kept Sam’s life private for his entire senior season, those NFL locker rooms do the same. Last, in the wake of the Incognito/Martin debachle, anyone who attempted to degrade Sam for being gay would be absolutely raked over the coals for their actions. This country, thankfully, has zero tolerance for hate anymore. If Sam comes in and contributes, which I really think he will (he’s really good), he’ll be accepted. If he can’t get to the QB he’ll fizzle out. However it won’t be because he’s gay, it’ll be because of his play.
4. There will be an adjustment period: While Sam will not be purposely hated on for being gay, I do think there will be a period of adjusting to the scenario. The most obvious adjustment is going to come in the use of slang terms from “gay”, to “fag”, to “pussy”. These terms are normally not used with true malice aimed at actually attacking a gay man, they are still meant as slang terms to degrade behavior as being less than masculine. I think it’s going to take some time, a year or more, before the locker room and playing field environment adjusts their use of these words. However, much like within a locker room the “N” word, has found some form of self-regulated rules for use, I think something similar will happen with those slang terms. I am by no means advocating the use of any slang terms (the “N” or “F” word), I’m just trying to be realistic.
The other adjustment period will come with regards to the NFL ‘s very high number of Born Again Christians. While I do not think these people will seek to persecute Sam, I do think they will keep their distance from him. Religion is a complex thing, and according to their religious beliefs, they have an issue with the idea of being gay. While I think they should be able to get past it, and I think most will at least for social/team purposes, it is still a religious matter. Overall, I think the adjustment period will be short, but it will exist.
5. There will be more: Not only because Sam came out, but also just because of the highly annoying age of 24/7 citizen journalism, the form of social media, I think over the next 2 years we’ll see at least 10 additional pro athletes come out. It sucks that they could be “outted” by random people with camera phones rather than coming to that decision on their own, but I do think it will ultimately be for the best. Again, based on the statistics, they are already out there, so it is inevitable that they will very soon just be “out.”
One closing point I wanted to touch on. I think things for all races, cultures, and sexual orientations have come a long way over the past 50 years. I think, as a country and as a world, we are slowly becoming much more tolerant. However, I do think we aren’t completely there, even in the most progressive places, yet. As long as we still refer to a black quarterback as anything other than a QB or a black head coach as anything other then a coach, we aren’t there yet. As long as we have to refer to Michael Sam as an openly gay athlete, rather than just a NFL player, we aren’t there yet. To me, when we’ve really achieved progress, there will be an absence of a need to define it. Progress, again just to me, means not needing to qualify a person by anything beyond the role you’re describing them as. We are in the process of progressing, and we’re developing positive momentum. However we’ll know we’ve achieved something when a player like RG3 is just a QB, and Michael Sam is just a “tweener”. In the mean time, thank you Michael Sam Jr., for having the strength to help keep the momentum of progress moving forward. We are almost there.