Good for Michael Sam. And now, good luck.
Sam is the All-American football player from the University of Missouri who announced over the weekend that he is gay. It was a landmark moment in the history of American sports. Sam could become the first openly gay player in the NFL. We say “could” because Sam will be part of the NFL draft in May. Already, league insiders say he will not be chosen as highly as projected. That’s dismaying, but not surprising.
It takes more than a courageous player to break such a barrier; it also takes a team willing to select him. And teammates ready to accept him. We hope the organization that drafts Sam is as brave and committed as he is.
It was only last spring that former New Jersey Nets center Jason Collins became the first active athlete in the four major North American team sports – baseball, basketball, football and hockey – to come out. A journeyman, Collins was 34 at the time and near the end of his career. He, too, was brave – and no team signed him for the current season. Was he rejected because of diminishing skills, or something else?
Sam’s situation will be more defining. One of the country’s best college football players, he is about to try to begin his career in America’s most popular sport, one long known for its macho culture. Anti-gay slurs are common among NFL players. Some have said flatly they do not want a gay teammate. Many, though, expressed support and admiration for Sam after he came out. Hopefully, he has made it easier for the Sams of the future, and for those now playing: Over the past 40 years, a number of NFL players have said they are gay – after their careers were over.
How much progress has our society really made in accepting gays? Does the road to success in sports – a bastion of workplace homophobia – get tougher after you come out?
Sam told his teammates and coaches at Missouri before last season; the team went 12-2 and he was the most valuable player. The bottom line: Missouri accepted Sam for who he is. It’s time for the teams and players of the NFL to do the same.