Michael Sam was the 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year. He will be selected somewhere in the next NFL draft. And on Sunday, he told the world he was gay. Perhaps one day our society will embrace people of all sexualities, as we should, and this kind of thing won't be national news. For now, though, let us celebrate what Sam did as both courageous and monumental.
"I'm not naive," Sam told ESPN this weekend. "I know this is a huge deal and I know how important this is. But my role as of right now is to train for the combine and play in the NFL."
What Sam will likely face now is an onslaught of media coverage and fan scrutiny -- and probably a few guys wondering if they should act any differently around him in the locker room. But challenges are nothing new for the 24-year-old Texas native, who reportedly told his University of Missouri teammates last August that he was gay. Three of his siblings have died, and two brothers are in prison, Sam said. He was raised almost entirely by his mother and he is the first person in his family to graduate from college.
"I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it," Sam said. "I just want to own my truth."
That may be easier said than done in the environment of pro football, a sport that has never known an openly gay active player. Last June, when I spoke with retired linebacker and Super Bowl champion Brendon Ayanbadejo about his support of marriage equality, he said that not all of his fellow players took his views in stride. "A lot of guys started snickering and making comments and saying Brendon's coming out," he said. "And I'd say, 'yeah, Brendon's coming out in support of marriage equality and equality for all.' They kind of threw me in the category where a lot of guys thought I was gay."
The NFL has already issued a statement of support, and we've heard the company line from players saying that if Sam can help his team win, then his sexual orientation is irrelevant. But is that the case in every locker room?
"I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," an anonymous NFL player personnel assistant told Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans of Sports Illustrated. "In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."
The truth is that to do what Sam has done on national television, just weeks before the draft process begins, takes a tremendous amount of courage. When NBA player Jason Collins came out as gay last April, he was widely lauded for showing similar qualities. But this situation is different. While Collins was 34 years old and all but retired, Sam has yet to play a single down in the NFL. He has his entire career ahead of him.
One hopes that league commissioner Roger Goodell, who has a brother who is gay, will set a tone of tolerance in his organization. But as fans, we have a responsibility here too. We won't ever be Sam's teammates, but that should not prevent us from supporting him. Michael Sam has never deserved anything less than our full respect. That's as true now as it ever was.
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