When defensive lineman Michael Sam revealed in Sunday interviews with the New York Times and ESPN that "I am an openly, proud gay man," the University of Missouri All American suddenly became a leading contender to become the first openly homosexual NFL draft pick. But whether the league – and America – are ready to embrace a gay player remains to be seen.
The 24-year-old says he came out to his coaches and teammates during last year's training, and he adds, "Just to see their reaction was awesome. They supported me from Day One. I couldn't have better teammates ... I'm telling you what: I wouldn't have the strength to do this today if I didn't know how much support they'd given me this past semester." And Missouri coach Gary Pinkel demonstrated that spirit of supportiveness Sunday, saying in a statement that "We're really happy for Michael that he's made the decision to announce this, and we're proud of him and how he represents Mizzou. Michael is a great example of just how important it is to be respectful of others, he's taught a lot of people here first-hand that it doesn't matter what your background is, or your personal orientation, we're all on the same team and we all support each other."
Since Sam's announcement, others in the football world have voiced their support. Colts punter Pat McAfee tweeted "Good for Michael Sam. Hopefully this'll inspire others to be comfortable and proud of who they are." NFL spokesman NFL Greg Aiello tweeted, "We admire Michael Sam's honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014." Michele Obama tweeted, "You're an inspiration to all of us, @MikeSamFootball. We couldn't be prouder of your courage both on and off the field." Jerome Bettis, Ryan Clark and Deion Sanders have added their voices to the chorus of praise. And even Richie Incognito, a man whose history strongly suggests a questionable relationship with tact, apparently tweeted, "#respect bro. It takes guts to do what you did. I wish u nothing but the best."
But not everyone is cool with the idea of an openly gay professional football player. Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans report that "eight NFL executives and coaches" told them Sunday that "They project a significant drop in Sam's draft stock, a publicity circus and an NFL locker room culture not prepared to deal with an openly gay player." An NFL player personnel assistant explained to them that "At this point in time it's still a man's-man game," perhaps not grasping that gay men can be man's men too, and worrying that "It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room." And an assistant coach said, "There's nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of the locker room. If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it? It's going to be a big distraction. That's the reality. It shouldn't be, but it will be." As a journalist friend noted Monday, it's kind of funny how being gay is a "distraction" but those college players who've been accused of rape and assault aren't.
Former NFL head coach Herm Edwards, meanwhile, has expressed concern about whether Sam would be "bringing baggage into your locker room." And last week, before Sam's announcement, New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma declared that "I don't want people to just naturally assume, like, 'Oh, we're all homophobic.' That's really not the case. Imagine if he's the guy next to me and, you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me. How am I supposed to respond?"
The world turns slowly. Despite the fact that the NFL has been stammering around the notion of openly gay players for some time now, the fact is none in its ranks have yet come out. And so tired old stereotypes that gay men aren't masculine enough for such a big strong manly man's game persist, as if sexual orientation were somehow tied to one's ability to run or kick or throw a ball. The terror of being checked out by a member of one's own sex continues. But guess what? Often people who've been systematically discriminated against are just looking for an equal opportunity to achieve in a field they care about, not a chance to gawk at you in the shower. Really!
And then there's fear of "distraction." That's the classic excuse that's routinely deployed whenever one marginalized group makes headway into a previously restricted culture. What if having women/minorities/gay people around, you know, REGULAR PEOPLE makes everybody feel uncomfortable or icky or unable to concentrate on their work? What if they attract … attention? I guess the answer is, bring in more of them so one isn't such a big deal, right? You hire people based on their ability and not whether or not they look and act exactly like everyone you've ever hired in the past. Try that. Because here's what's going to happen. Openly gay men are going to start playing professional football – just like gay people participate in other sports and have jobs and get married like everybody else. Maybe Michael Sam will be the first to cross that line when May rolls around. Or maybe it'll be someone else. But it will happen. Because though the world turns slowly it does turn. And every day there are fewer and fewer closets in it. Michael Sam has already opened a door and that door is never going to be shut again now. Period. He's challenged the NFL and the world to accept a man who's honest about who he is. Whatever else happens now, he's already a champion.