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Another Step: Michael Sam and the 21st Century NFL

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Disclaimer: I speak as an observer, a first-generation immigrant who grew up in this country but in a foreign household. My thoughts on Michael Sam are those of a first-generation NFL fan, and someone coming of age in modern times. I am not queer, nor am I African-American, and so I cannot presume to speak from those perspectives (relevant as they are).

Michael Sam, a top NFL prospect and first-team All-American defensive end at Missouri, came out before the Draft. This choice is commendable and required tremendous courage, as he was about to become the first openly gay athlete in one of America's Big Four sports leagues and decided to tell his own story before going pro.

For those who remember Jason Collins, the basketball center who came out last April, the two aren't really comparable cases. Collins is not likely to play again in the NBA because he waited until the end of his career to come out, and what's left of his skillset isn't worth the media firestorm he'd bring to any of the league's franchises.

Sam, unlike Collins, absolutely has a skillset that will be of value to NFL teams as an athletic pass rusher that should fit neatly as an outside linebacker into a 3-4 (three-man defensive line, four linebackers) scheme. As long as Sam is drafted by a team that can maximize his talents both in terms of style of play and culture, he should thrive in the NFL. He needs a schematically sound defense with established coaches and veteran leadership, like those run by the New England Patriots or Seattle Seahawks.

It's frankly heartening that the vast majority of people in the NFL -- people who matter -- have vocally expressed that they don't give a damn about Sam's sexuality as long as he can help their organizations win football games. The recent influx of a wave of younger general managers to NFL front offices is further reassurance that Michael Sam will get his fair shot.

That was the shortfall of Collins' coming out: people conflated his sexuality with his skill level, and assumed it was the former and not the latter that led to his career essentially ending. If there's a "right time" to come out for an athlete (assuming they have made their own peace with the deeply personal decision), Michael Sam nailed it. His NFL career has yet to begin, and because he has established full control of and pride in his identity before playing a single pro snap, he will be a (likely very good) NFL player who just happens to be gay. He's taken away any power the story could have over him.

But what's really intrigued me is the fact that the inevitable homophobic reactions (on Twitter, at least) to Sam coming out have not only been small-minded and petty as expected: a great many of them have been couched in the idea that Sam's sexual identity represents a failure on the part of his father, that football is for men and Michael Sam is somehow not that.

I can't help but wonder if this stems from what many devoted fans feel is the systematic chipping away at the "manliness" of the NFL. The league, in recent years and arguably somewhat against its will, has been making the game safer. Excessive contact rules are stiffer, penalties are more numerous, and bone-jarring hits (the kind that reward a certain type of vicarious bloodthirst) are harshly fined.

This is all to say that Michael Sam can represent a crossroads of destiny for the National Football League. Yes, he will be the first openly gay active athlete in a major professional American sport, but this particular sport is one that is struggling to adapt as modern medicine comes to understand the consequences of its particular brand of physics.

The question on my mind isn't "will Michael Sam be allowed to play in the NFL?" He will. It isn't "will Michael Sam do well in the NFL?" If he's drafted by a team that can use his skills and has a culture that will not tolerate bias against his identity, he will. It isn't even "will Michael Sam be allowed to be his own man, his own voice, or will he become a symbol of various movements left, right and center?" Time will tell.

The question on my mind is, "will the NFL make this step the first in a path toward reinvention?" The NFL, as it has existed for generations, is too violent a sport to exist in high definition. We know too much about how much damage it causes, and there are too many forums in our world for the mythos of machismo to silence players who suffer a lifetime of consequences for a decade of playing football on Sundays.

This league is mired in a tug-of-war between making its play safer and maintaining what its fans passionately believe is the machismo at the core of the league. Making it clear that a player's sexuality doesn't matter, that only contributing to a winning team matters, even at the risk of alienating some fans, would be the first step in a mentality shift that I deeply believe the NFL needs to make in order to survive.

I love American football. But it has become increasingly clear that the NFL of generations past, the "golden eras" to which commentators allude that I have never seen or been made aware of, cannot survive today.

Michael Sam going pro can be an isolated event, a curiosity and a footnote in the NFL's history.

Or he can be the first step in its reinvention for the future, the first in a series of moments that are connected only by their fearlessness and echo across time to build the league's path to the future.

So which will it be?