Missouri Tigers defensive end Michael Sam sent shockwaves through the sports world on Sunday when he announced that he is gay. If he is drafted in April, he will be the first openly gay athlete to play in the National Football League. Huge news, to say the least.
He came out to his college teammates prior to the 2013 season and was amicably accepted within the organization. Sam said he was supported “from day one” citing instances when teammates have attended gay pride events with him. Some of the team members -- straight team members -- have even been known to frequent gay bars in St. Louis with Sam.
In an interview with ESPN, Sam refreshingly said, “Telling the world I’m gay is nothing.” Refreshing because, as it was “nothing” for him to come out, it should be “nothing” that a gay man wants to play a professional sport -- and a masculine, testosterone-filled sport at that.
If it were any other player, it would be easy for NFL teams worried about upsetting their fanbases to cast Sam aside in the upcoming draft. Sam’s talent, however, is unignorable. The Associated Press named him the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year. Any other player of his caliber would undoubtedly be drafted in the middle rounds.
Sam is not any other player, though. He is trying to compete in an environment that holds largely hostile and exclusionary attitudes towards the LGBTQ-plus environment. Various NFL executives have already anonymously chimed in on Sam’s coming out and what they are saying is hugely discouraging.
One scout said, “Unfortunately, this is a lot more okay in society than it is in lots of locker rooms. Some locker rooms are still stuck in the ’50s.” This sentiment contradicts what Sam has said. Sam frequently reiterated the fact that his teammates knew about his sexuality and were completely accepting of him.
While there are certainly players out there who would have trouble playing alongside an openly gay teammate, the reality is NFL teams are more worried about their fans. Saying it would cause problems in the locker room is a much more convenient and diplomatic excuse than calling out fans for their intolerance.
At the end of the day, the only thing team owners care about is selling tickets. Normally, the best way to do that is by putting together an elite team that plays competitive football. Despite the progress this country has made, a gay player is still enough to alienate some of the most hardcore fans and that is too much to risk for NFL executives.
Regardless of what happens, Sam’s announcement is a major step forward for professional sports. Thus far, Sam has carried himself with remarkable poise and there is no doubt he will carry that into his professional career. The onus is on his future teammates and especially his fans to treat him with the respect and graciousness he deserves.