The conversation around the first out gay athlete in a major sport has always had at its center the presumption that an already-drafted star would be the one to break through this particular glass ceiling. Consider, for instance, all the rumors that have swirled over a hypothetical mass coming-out by a group of established NFL stars, an event that ended up never happening.
It's as likely that there are no gay men playing in the NFL, NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball as it is that there are no gay men living in Sochi, Russia. And yet none of these players have ever come out while actively playing; last year, Jason Collins of the NBA came out only once it was unclear whether or not his career would continue for another year. The degree to which the journeyman's career seemed to have peaked anyway before he wasn't picked up for another season failed to resolve the question of how team owners and management would respond to a player being out; Collins's being out certainly seemed not to have helped matters, though.
This is where we come to Michael Sam, the Missouri defensive lineman whose coming-out -- first to his team, then to America via ESPN and the New York Times -- has gotten around the pressures that athletes face by speaking his truth before he faces the pressures of pro sports. Sam, like Collins before him, is not at the height of a professional career; he does not have as many people with fixed ideas about what guarantees a team's success and its receipt of positive media attention whispering in his ear.
The difference is, Sam could potentially have a long future in sports. And his coming out now, while risky, is in other ways a fantastic way to break through. Blind quotes from team managers about how Sam won't fit into locker-room culture aside, Sam's not being drafted would look shockingly retrograde; while anything's possible, it's a fair presumption that he will get picked by a team. He'll go in with nothing to hide, whereas if he had come out later in an NFL career, that team could drop him and airily twist statistics to indicate he'd been dropped for performance reasons.
Is it any wonder established gay NFL players (presuming they exist) don't want to come out? There's so much churn on football teams already that a decision to come out -- flying in the face of convention -- seems like a pretty good way to come across as that worst of things, a "distraction." Former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe has claimed he was dropped by his team for his pro-equality advocacy, and he's straight!
Sam, on the other hand, will be the focus of media attention more than most early prospects, but will already have exhausted his coming-out news cycle by the time he's on an NFL team. The idea that he'll draw enough media attention to truly be distracting, whatever that means, is hard to fathom -- and he already has a track record from college of being out of the closet to teammates without detracting from team unity. Sam gave his teammates time to process the news before coming out to the world, and it certainly seems as though he proved that a player known by teammates to be gay can be respected within the organization.
While coming out is not and should not be perceived as a P.R. campaign, Sam couldn't have done better to prove that he's qualified to be the NFL's first out gay player. He has, by sharing his truth with his teammates before talking to the media, put to bed the notion that a gay man in the locker room somehow tears at the fabric of a team or draws undue attention, and he has refused to endlessly put off his coming-out in the manner that hypothetical gay football pros have hypothetically been doing for years. All his cards are on the table and whoever drafts Sam will have the luxury of keeping him or trading him based on his performance, not on new information. It may well be that some teams avoid drafting Sam for retrograde reasons. But that'd be their loss. Sam, in telling his story to the public before it actually did become a distraction, has proven he's a team player.