I had mixed feelings about writing this story, not because I don’t think it’s message is great and necessary, but because it’s sad that in 2014, after so many advancements in race and sexuality relations (we still have FAR to go) that this would be news.
As the then 23 year-old University of Missouri All-American defensive lineman walked into his school’s facility this past August for the beginning of training camp, he had a mission on his mind; to come out to his teammates which largely already new that he was gay. As the players went around in a circle, telling each other things about themselves, anecdotes and silly talents, Sam’s was that he was proudly, and openly gay. His teammates embraced him, perhaps a sign that among at least the younger generation of athletes, sexual tolerance could come to be the norm.
Fast forward to this year’s Senior Bowl, the 6’2′, 255 pound defensive end knew that a lot of people were talking and speculating about his sexuality. It wasn’t a secret, but Sam decided to come out to the public and media so that the announcement was a message he could control. He told ESPN’s Chris Connelly in an interview;
“I want to own my truth. Two weeks ago at The Senior Bowl I didn’t realize how many people actually knew, and I was afraid that someone would tell or leak something out about me or tell a story. I just wanted to control the situation and tell my story.”
Support from current NFL players and sports journalists has been overwhelming:
There is no room for bigotry in American sports. It takes courage to change the culture.
— Malcolm Smith (@MalcSmitty) February 10, 2014
I applaud Missouri DE @MichaelSamfootball for his bravery & honesty about who he is. I pray he gets a opportunity 2 play the game he loves!
— DeionSanders (@DeionSanders) February 10, 2014
Had multiple convos with @MikeSamFootball this year, amazed at his honesty & courage! Once a tiger, ALWAYS a Tiger!
— Chase Daniel (@ChaseDaniel) February 10, 2014
He still hasn’t made it to the NFL, but with his accolades and bang-up senior year at the University of Missouri, including being a unanimous All-American, SEC (South Eastern Conference) Defensive Player of the Year and leading the SEC in sacks and tackles. Sports analysts say he could go high as the third round in the NFL Draft. But the question is still pervasive: Will locker room good-ol’-boyisms and fear of athletes’ changing culture deter GMs and coaches from picking the talent for their team? Pro Football Hall of Famer and NFL Network Analyst Deion Sanders pointedly (and ratchetly) tweeted that if drafted, Michael Sam won’t be the ONLY gay NFL player, just the only publicly gay one.
What’s the stigma behind athletes being afraid of admitting to their sexuality? Are they worried about how interpersonal relationships between themselves and their teammates will change? Do they worry they’ll be seen as less of a man because of the hyper-masculinity promoted by sports talking heads? Even with the recent influx of young, more progressive general managers, pro-sports are still largely run by the old guard, over-fifty, white men – a demographic who are perhaps the last frontier when it comes to non-progression. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell expressed that sexual discrimination in the NFL was unacceptable. Clearly it wasn’t enough to stave off the stigma.
Professional football is perhaps one of the last unchartered territories where sexual diversity is taboo – “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Women in professional sports have been openly gay since the days of tennis player Billie Jean King (who won 39 Grand Slams) and Sheryl Swoops. It’s an understatement to say it’s time for a discussion to be had.
Michael Sam is brave. So many people live their lives day-to-day, pretending to be someone they’re not, hiding their beliefs and lifestyles for fear of society’s repercussions. Whatever you believe, it’s unfair for any person to walk around, hiding who they are because they fear others will persecute them. We all live our lives according to our beliefs. Who are we to judge someone’s difference? An injustice for one, usually turns into an injustice for all.
How would this world be without diversity in culture, race, thought, and yes, sexuality? Dry as sh*t.