Michael Sam and the road ahead for LGBT rights in sports
University of Missouri’s own Michael Sam is a 6-foot-2-inch, 256-pound lineman with a fierce first step off the line and brutal closing speed as he chases down quarterbacks. His conference-leading 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss, combined with his status as the unquestioned leader of one of the most surprising and inspiring teams in college football, propelled him to becoming Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year. This past year, Sam was one of the most talked-about and feared players in college football because of his performance on the field. But this weekend, Sam became perhaps the most–talked-about athlete on the planet for a very different reason—on May 8, he will presumably become the first openly gay player in the NFL.
It took a lot of courage to do what Sam did. The nation as a whole has become pretty accepting of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals over the past decade. However, the world of professional sports—the NFL in particular—is still depicted as overwhelmingly homophobic and intolerant. The image of an overly macho locker-room culture is only perpetuated when people like 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver or Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer make homophobic remarks to the media or other players. The NFL has never been described as a tolerant, accepting world, so everyone knew that its first openly gay player would face a difficult path. Countless sportswriters and talent scouts have claimed that Sam cost himself a considerable amount of money and dropped from a mid-round prospect to one who will struggle to make a practice squad because of the effect he will have on team chemistry or the locker room dynamic. To Sam, it may have seemed like the entire sports world was screaming at him to stay in the closet. But he came out anyway and in doing so made a bold cultural statement that runs much deeper than draft picks and 40-yard-dash times.
Several NFL general managers have anonymously said that they will not draft Sam because of his potential to attract attention or disrupt team dynamics. However, from a strict football standpoint, drafting Sam in the middle rounds of the draft makes sense. He does not have the size of a prototypical NFL defensive end but could easily make the transition to outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Players like DeMarcus Ware of the Cowboys have had enormous success with hybrid defensive end/linebacker positions. Sam has strikingly similar measurements and statistics to Aldon Smith, another former Mizzou defensive end who switched to linebacker after being drafted by the 49ers and became the 2011 Defensive Rookie of the Year. Sam is not huge by NFL standards, but he has the speed and athleticism that would make him an enormous steal in the draft for a team that is willing to take a risk on him.
Sports media does not seem to be able to get over the argument that drafting Sam would be a team chemistry disaster for any NFL team. ESPN and Fox Sports cannot stop talking about the overtly masculine and homophobic culture in the NFL that would reject Sam. Their arguments, however, are based entirely upon anecdotal evidence. There are obviously a few publicly homophobic players in the NFL. But there are going to be a few intolerant people in any organization as large as an NFL team. NFL players as a whole have grown up in a society that is relatively accepting toward homosexuality. Most of the negative voices around Sam’s coming out have come not from the players themselves but from NFL upper management and older sportswriters.
Michael Sam actually came out to his teammates at Mizzou during preseason camp last August, long before the media or anyone else knew. What happened to the Missouri “team chemistry” and “locker room dynamic” after one of the team’s most important players made such a controversial statement? I can’t say for myself because I’m not on the University of Missouri football team, but Sam was voted team MVP by his teammates. And I think the fact that the team went from a struggling 5-7 squad to a 12-2 football powerhouse that dominated the SEC East and was one quarter away from playing for a national championship speaks for itself.
Despite what so many sportswriters are saying, I am confident that Sam will hear his name called on draft weekend in May. He will shake hands with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and sign with a team. And he will enter an NFL locker room and do all of the things he did at Missouri: work hard in practice, motivate his teammates with his energy and enthusiasm, and do his best to make big plays in big games. But more importantly, he will serve as a message to untold numbers of kids who are afraid to participate in sports because of their sexuality. The notion that Sam will disrupt team dynamics or chemistry is ridiculous—sports media has a short memory, and NFL coaches and players honestly care mostly about winning, so if he performs well on the field, his sexuality will not be an issue in any locker room. The world is ready, and has been for some time, for an openly gay football player. And when Sam steps onto the field for his first NFL game next fall, I’m confident that the NFL will be ready, too.