In an interview with ESPN’s Outside the Lines that aired on Sunday, All-American defensive end from the Missouri Tigers, Michael Sam, announced that he is, indeed a gay man. Sam also made the same confession in another interview—with the New York Times.
It is not the first time that he has confessed this revelation. He “came out of the closet” to his Missouri teammates this past college football season. They gave him his support.
If anything will test how progressively the NFL has moved on the issue of a gay athlete within its ranks, this will be it. Michael Sam is not the first gay football player, and he will not be the last gay football player. But, the fact is that he is the first to make such an announcement is astounding.
In addition, he is making such an announcement merely weeks before the Combine commences and only a few months prior to the NFL Draft. Sam, a native of Hitchcock, Texas (a Houston suburb) is seen as a top draft prospect and his Missouri Tigers are coming off a season in which they posted a 12-2 (7-1 in the SEC) to finish in the top spot in the SEC East as well as defeating Oklahoma State 41-31 in the Cotton Bowl.
Hopefully, this does not affect Sam’s draft status as he ought to be evaluated by scouts at the Combine based on his previous play and how he does at the Combine. Unfortunately, Sam’s announcement was not met with an “Atta Boy!” from the “draft experts” at CBS Sports.
Sam was previously 90th on CBS Sports’ draft board. After his announcement that he was gay, he dropped to 160th—70 places.
That is precisely the kind of thinking that has prevented other gay athletes in the NFL (as well as other male-dominant sports) from coming out. Instead of keeping it at if a gay athlete can play, the person’s sexuality becomes a bigger issue than if they can contribute in a positive manner to a team.
Scores of college and NFL players, media, and executives have reacted to Sam’s announcement (mostly on Twitter) primarily with praise and support. This has included Malcolm Smith, this year’s Super Bowl MVP for the Seattle Seahawks.
“There is no room for bigotry in American sports. It takes courage to change the culture.”–@MalcSmitty (Malcolm Smith)
Richie Incognito, who last year was in the midst of his own allegations of bullying fellow Miami Dolphin Jonathan Martin (but has since seen public opinion shift more in his favor), also tweeted support for Sam.
“@MikeSamFootball #respect bro. It takes guts to do what you did. I wish u nothing but the best”–@68INCOGNITO (Richie Incognito)
Players may be more accepting of culture, and so may a plethora of members of the football media. But, there is no doubt that the culture of the NFL still has a way to go in terms of change. This is why what Malcolm Smith tweeted hit the problem at its core—bigotry in American sports.
This stems from the fact that the NFL is the embodiment of macho-man culture in America gone out of control. And when anyone in the NFL is perceived to be less than a hyper-masculine Godzilla, it opens them up to immediate criticism and potential blacklisting from the league.
The case of Chris Kluwe is exhibit A of what is being talked about. Kluwe, a former punter for the Minnesota Vikings, back in January, posted on Deadspin’s website that he was forced off the Vikings because of the anti-gay views of special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, despite Kluwe having the support of Vikings owner Zygi Wilf. There is now a possibility that Kluwe could pursue legal action against the team.
There have been other occasions in sports where athletes have announced that they were gay, such as the cases of John Amaechi and Jason Collins (last year). This announcement is also happening during the course of the Sochi Winter Olympics, which has received criticism from many gay rights advocates for being staged in a country with harsh anti-gay laws.
Why the blacklisting from NFL teams? Because the ownership fraternity in the NFL is full of old, rich, out of touch men who still have their calendars set to the year 1954, not 2014. The league may be progressive in terms of connecting with fans, but when it comes to its ownership structure, it looks more like 1940s America, not 2010s America.
Sam can play in the NFL as evidenced by the statistics he posted this past season for Missouri. His season statistics, including Mizzou’s Cotton Bowl victory included 48 tackles, and 11.5 sacks.
If anyone has earned their fair share of criticism, it is not Sam. Firstly, the draft “experts” at CBS Sports and other sports media channels should have to immediately explain why in one day, Sam’s draft status plummeted from 90th to 160th. Second, anyone in the media writing pieces about how it will affect Sam’s draft stock instead of evaluating him solely on his football credentials are part of the problem. Third, if Sam is not drafted because of this announcement, then the NFL will have to look at itself in the mirror.
It will prove that even if players are increasingly warming to the idea of an openly gay player on their team, the league’s old guard still isn’t, for the most part. Again, Sam is not the first gay player in the NFL, just the first one to announce this publicly.
For all of the chest thumping the NFL loves to do about how it is the number one sport in America, that means nothing when it comes to this issue, because male sports have not historically accepting of anything less than a hyper-masculine Godzilla. The tide is turning in the right direction in favor of equal treatment, but it has previously been then that has prevented other players with the same (or similar) sexual orientations as Sam from not confessing the same things.
If the NFL wants to chest thump about how it is the number one sport in America, in terms of ratings, revenue, attendance, and media attention, it must also be reflective of the new reality America is in. Athletes have come out of the closet in other sports, so it was only a matter of time before the league was confronted in the face with this same issue.
Football has done a good job talking the talk about their number one sporting status. It’s now time for the NFL to walk the walk and act like America’s number one sport.
48 tackles, 11.5 sacks, SEC Defensive player of the year, en route to a Cotton Bowl win for Missouri. Sam deserves to be evaluated not on his gay status, but on his game status.