There was a time in the not-so-distant past when Michael Sam would have never been able to come out as gay and expect to receive the largely positive reaction that he has gotten.
The mostly supportive reaction for the Missouri linebacker and his admission that he is gay speaks volumes for how far we have come as a country, but that doesn’t diminish the significance of his announcement or the amount of courage it took for him to do so. Despite the mostly positive reaction, it should come as no surprise that there have been a few negative responses to his announcement as well.
For example, free agent wide receiver Patrick Crayton – who hasn’t played in the NFL since 2011 – sent out a series of tweets that were critical of Sam’s decision to reveal that he’s gay.
Former coach and ESPN analyst Herm Edwards also expressed his concern that Sam’s open homosexuality will be viewed as “baggage” by NFL teams. Meanwhile, several anonymous NFL executives told Sports Illustrated that they were skeptical as to whether or not the league was ready to accept an openly gay player.
But aside from these few examples of those that questioned Sam’s decision, the reaction was very positive and supportive of him, including from many within the NFL.
Seattle Seahawks linebacker and reigning Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith, Buccaneers tight end Tom Crabtree, Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, and fellow Missouri linebacker Kentrell Brothers were just a few of those who took to Twitter to offer their praise and support of Sam and his announcement.
In addition to receiving praise from current and former NFL players, Sam also was given support from both the NFL itself and the University of Missouri.
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in a statement. “Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”
The University of Missouri also took to Twitter to express its support of Sam, issuing the following tweet:
Needless to say, the overwhelming support for Michael Sam and his announcement was a thing of beauty in the eyes of supporters of LBGT rights. Sam took a huge first step by telling the world that he is gay, but he still is entering uncharted territory in North American professional sports, and many questions still remain.
Of course NBA center Jason Collins made history last year when he became the first player in one of the four major sports to publicly announce his homosexuality, but he hasn’t played a game since he did so. The main reason Collins hasn’t played since then probably isn’t because of his sexuality, but rather his skill level and age.
He’s now 36 years old and was a journeyman throughout his career, so it wasn’t likely many teams would have been asking for his services even if he hadn’t come out.
With Michael Sam, the situation is far different.
He is just coming into America’s most watched and followed league, and was projected to be a mid-round pick in the upcoming draft. If you look strictly at his numbers, he certainly doesn’t seem to be a risky selection.
In 2013, Sam recorded an SEC-leading 11.5 sacks, helping to lead the Tigers to a 12-2 record and an SEC East title. For his efforts, Sam was named the Co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year and was a unanimous first-team All-American.
While Sam knows that his announcement may effect his draft stock, he stated that he hopes teams can look past his sexuality and draft him based on his impressive career as a collegiate player.
“[I hope] they see not just a gay athlete, but they can see an athlete who knows how to play the game,” he said.
But as evidenced by the anonymous NFL executives that spoke to Sports Illustrated, there is a solid chance some teams will be hesitant to bring him into their locker rooms, despite all of his accomplishments on the gridiron.
Those teams might think his presence will divide the locker room, bring a media circus with him, and distract the team from playing football. There’s fear that some players would be uncomfortable with having a gay player in the locker room, and that could have an adverse effect on the team’s performance.
However, that argument loses some credibility when you look at the 2013 Missouri Tigers team and all the success it had.
In August, before the start of last season, Sam announced to his teammates and coaches that he was gay. Rather than the locker room being divided and controversy ensuing, his teammates were very supportive of him and went on to put together one of the most successful seasons in school history. The fact that nobody spilled the beans to the media about Sam’s sexuality also showed the team’s maturity and the respect the players had for their teammate. He was one of their own and a great football player, and that’s all that mattered to his teammates and coaches.
If a team of college players was able to accept an openly gay player without it being a distraction, one would think that a team of (supposedly) more mature NFL players could do it as well.
Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski may have put it best when he stated why he believed that Sam’s sexuality wouldn’t be a distraction in the NFL.
“Our team was able to move past it and work together,” Kuligowski said. “So why shouldn’t a bunch of professional football players be able to do the same thing?”
There is always a chance that there might be some players who would be vocal in their opposition to having a gay teammate. The easiest solution to that problem would be for that team’s head coach to make it clear right away that there will be no tolerance for anyone creating a stir by going to the media and voicing their displeasure.
Even way back in 1969 (long before homosexuality was viewed as being socially acceptable), legendary coach Vince Lombardi had a few players on his Washington Redskins team that were privately known to be gay. Despite living in a time when homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association, Lombardi made it clear to his assistant coaches that he wasn’t going to tolerate any harassing of one of his players because of his sexual orientation.
“If I hear one of you people make reference to his manhood, you’ll be out of here before your ass hits the ground,” Lombardi reportedly told his assistants. And if he was willing to make such a statement way back in 1969, there’s no reason a coach in today’s NFL couldn’t do the same.
It’s been a dream for many that we someday reach a point where a professional athlete’s sexual orientation won’t be controversial and a player coming out will no longer be huge news.
Thanks to Michael Sam, we might be on the road to making that dream into a reality.