Michael Sam presents NFL's real manhood test: Is it as mature as college football?

If a college football team can fully accept a gay teammate, why should anything less be expected of full-grown men?

By Edward Wyckoff Williams

Published February 12, 2014 3:53PM (EST)

Michael Sam                  (ESPN)
Michael Sam (ESPN)

“The news is not that Missouri All-American defensive end Michael Sam is gay,” writes ESPN’s Ivan Maisel. “The news is that when he told his teammates in August, it so tore apart the locker room that the Tigers won the SEC East.”

The recent media coverage of Sam’s coming out has centered on the same old-age question debated when Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball. 1940’s sports bosses lectured Branch Rickey about how a man of color would make a locker room environment untenable – and that white players would be unwilling to shower with a black man. The U.S. military wrestled with similar concerns as African-Americans joined the barracks, and then later, openly gay men and women. “How will morale be affected?” they asked. And would men respond violently when confronted with difference and the unknown?

Yet, despite all the loud concerns from certain NFL general managers and the deafeningly ignorant tweets and statements from current and former NFL players, the truth is the “locker room” theory has already been weighed in the balances –and found wanting.

New Orleans Saints’ Jonathan Vilma offered the most succinctly ignorant example of these attitudes when he told the NFL Network:

“I think that he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted,” Vilma opined. “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?"

Perhaps the 31-year-old Vilma could learn a lesson from the 18-, 19-, 20- and 21-year-old young men on Missouri’s All-American team.

In his senior year, after coming out to his fellow teammates, Michael Sam, 24, piled up 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles. He was voted by his teammates as the MVP and then went on to win what is widely regarded as the most prestigious of the conferences -- finishing their season 12-2.

Sam and his teammates did all this without incident.

In fact, it is Sam’s ability, maturity and performance that led scouting experts to consider him a potential third- or fourth-round pick in the NFL draft, and why his coming out has garnered widespread media attention.

So if a college football team, with young men -- straight out of high school, from different parts of the country and different backgrounds -- can play, lift weights, travel, eat, sleep, win, lose—and yes, even shower alongside each other –why should anything less be expected of full-grown men?

The NFL isn’t a playground or a sandbox. It’s a professional organization, which pays men millions of dollars to perform and outperform at the highest levels.

Reactions from cowardly, faceless, “unnamed” NFL executives in a piece published by Sports Illustrated already shows that those in the entrenched halls of power are shifting in their proverbial cleats at the news that one of the most effective defensive linemen of the new generation is an openly gay man.

“I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,” one NFL executive said. “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. [It would] chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”

Another added, “Not that they’re against gay people. It’s more that some players are going to look at you upside down.”

But what is most revealing is that the NFL players who claim the league isn’t “ready” for a gay athlete, and who question the level of comfort straight players may feel, are unwittingly admitting their own lack of maturity, lack of professionalism and -- dare I say – lack of manhood.

Last year, the scandal involving Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito revealed an infantile nature of professional sports that has been tolerated for far too long. The kind of name calling, hazing and bullying tactics employed by Incognito would scarcely be tolerated in a high school P.E. class, let alone on a college campus, or in a place of employment.

How do grown men, considered giants, get away with acting so small?

The answer is simple: We, the fans, have aided and abetted the ignorance of our heroes. The fear of “sissies” and narrow definitions of masculinity are still very much embraced throughout American society, and too often, go unchallenged.

“The question which we so often have been offered — is the NFL ready for a gay player? — is backwards,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates for the Atlantic. “Powerful interests are rarely 'ready' for change, so much as they are assaulted by it. We refer to barriers being 'broken' for a reason. The reason is not because great powers generally like to unbar the gates and hold a picnic in the honor of the previously excluded.”

And herein lies the challenge not for Sam, but for football fans, team owners, general managers and players: Will we tolerate a tacit discrimination against gay men in professional football? Will we acquiesce and say the qualified African-American, defensive lineman and MVP – who happens to be gay— has no place in the NFL?

For you see, if we give credence to the concerns of men who say they may be "uncomfortable," then we offer a kind of consent to employment discrimination.

“The NFL has no moral right to be 'ready' for a gay player,” Coates concluded. “Which is to say it has no right to discriminate against gay men.”

Discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender and sexual orientation are widely condemned and legally protected against. And the NFL has no federal “sissy clause” exemptions.

Michael Sam shares the Missouri single-season sack record with San Francisco 49ers All-Pro Aldon Smith. At just under 6-foot-3, at 255 pounds, with a wingspan of almost 7 feet, Sam is a worthy adversary much like the Indianapolis Colts’ Robert Mathis, who led the NFL in sacks last year and was awarded the coveted Deacon Jones Award.

Seven former SEC defensive players of the year -- Jarvis Jones, Morris Claiborne, Patrick Peterson, Rolando McClain, Eric Berry, Glenn Dorsey and Patrick Willis -- were chosen in the first round. Sam should enjoy the same feat.

And there is no reason why the grown men of the NFL are unable to follow where the young men of Missouri have already led.

Edward Wyckoff Williams

Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root and a contributor to Al Jazeera America. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al Jazeera, MSNBC, CNN, ABC, CBS and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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