The National Football League could soon have its first true face of homosexuality. A handsome and articulate face. A personable and African-American face. The face of former University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam.
On Sunday evening, in a multi-platformed media barrage, Sam, who was the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Co-Defensive Player of the Year last season, announced that he was gay. “I came to tell the world that I am an openly proud gay man,” Sam, 24, told ESPN’s Chris Connelly. “It’s a load off my chest.”
Pro football is by far the most popular spectator sport in the United States: Last week’s Super Bowl between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks, while a one-sided affair, was the most-watched event (111 million viewers) in the history of television. While Sam is not the first professional athlete to announce that he is homosexual, he will, should he make an NFL roster next August, become the first openly gay active player in league history. With his first NFL tackle, Sam would forever be to the gay demographic what Jackie Robinson is to the African-American population: a paradigm-shifter.
When Robinson suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he was breaking down barriers that existed both in society and in the dugout. As for Sam, it would seem that the general public in 2014 is far more accepting of homosexuality than the NFL locker room. “Unfortunately, this is a lot more okay in society than it is in lots of locker rooms,” one NFL scout, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Peter King of Sports Illustrated. “Some locker rooms are still stuck in the ‘50’s.”
Sam first came out to his Missouri teammates last August. It happened during a team-building exercise during pre-season, when each player was asked, “Tell us something about yourself that no one knows about you.” Sam anxiously rolled a ball of paper in his hands, hesitated a moment, and then said, “I’m gay.”
An entire team of Tiger players and coaches, a little less than 100 men, kept Sam’s pronouncement private. They did this through the course of an entire season, a season in which Mizzou finished 12-2, coach Gary Pinkel was named SEC Coach of the Year and Sam, as already noted, was named its Co-Defensive Player of the Year. All of this in what is by far the nation’s most talented and competitive football conference.
“I never had a problem with my teammates,” Sam told The New York Times. “Some of my coaches were worried, but there was never an issue.”
In fact, Sam added, after coming out to his Missouri teammates he would have had no problem sharing this information with any stranger who asked about his sexual orientation. “I guess,” Sam said with a laugh, “they don’t want to ask a six-foot-three, 260-pound defensive lineman if he was gay or not.”
Last spring Jason Collins, on the final fumes of a long (12 seasons) but undistinguished NBA career, came out in a cover story in Sports Illustrated. Collins’ season had already ended and he has not played in the league since. A number of male pro athletes (baseball player Billy Bean and running back Dave Kopay, to name a pair) have come out after their playing days had ended, while a few high-profile female athletes, such as Brittney Griner, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s WNBA draft, have come out during their careers.
Sam, however, would be a trailblazer, entering a league that is notorious for its neanderthal views on sexual orientation. Just last month former Minnesota Viking punter Chris Kluwe, who is heterosexual and married, accused his former employers of cutting him because he publicly took a stand in favor of same-sex marriage. According to Kluwe, an eight-year veteran, during a postion meeting in November of 2012 special teams coach Mike Priefer said, “We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and nuke it until it glows.”
Priefer immediately issued a statement “vehemently” denying Kluwe’s allegation. On Saturday night Kluwe and Sam, along with the aforementioned Kopay and Bean as well as a few others, attended a dinner at the home of publicist Howard Bragman on the eve of Sam’s historic announcement. “We’ve come full-circle here,” Bragman said, offering a toast, “but Michael is the real hero here.”
There should be more. The NFL is the largest pro sports league in terms of personnel in the U.S., with approximately 1,600 active players on 32 rosters. Even if as little as one percent of the adult U.S. male population defines itself as gay--a very conservative figure, by most studies--that would strongly suggest that at least 16 current NFL players are gay. And for those who would assume NFL players are not wired that way, it bears mentioning that Michael Sam led the toughest conference in college football in sacks last season, with 11.5 and tackles for loss with 19.
Because of Sam’s “tweener” size (six-foot-two, 260 pounds), he is considered too small to play his college position, defensive end, in the NFL. At the recent Senior Bowl (where scouts asked his two agents if Sam had a girlfriend) he lined up at outside linebacker. The uncertainty of where he would play in the NFL has led many experts to project Sam as a third- to fourth-round selection in May’s draft. Sunday’s announcement could mean that he falls lower.
One former general manager, again speaking anonymously, confided to SI.com that Sam might be more of a distraction than he is worth. “Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to the Today show,” said the former executive. “A general manager is going to ask, 'Why are we going to do that to ourselves?'”
Which is the same ethos NFL management employed, after a few experiments, when ultimately deciding that former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow was not worth the trouble. The difference may be that Sam has bona fide NFL talent.
Later this month, the NFL will hold its annual scouting combine in Indianapolis, where all 32 teams kick the tires on the most promising prospects. Sam will attend. It’s funny: last February the most intriguing player at the combine was Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, who had gained notoriety in the weeks before for having a fake girlfriend. This year it will be Michael Sam, who will be even more closely scrutinized for having no girlfriend.
Does it really matter?