University of Missouri senior and Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam has had to answer a lot of questions over the past few weeks. A projected third-to-fourth round draft pick, Sam has received a disproportionate amount of media attention given where he's expected to be taken in May's NFL Draft. The reason? Michael Sam is about to become the first openly gay player in the NFL.
His questions are far from standard for rookies. What Sam has been asked reflects an inequality that forces the NFL out of the realm of hypothetical scenarios -- where gay players are theoretical and anonymous -- and into reality. These questions and the conversations their answers engender speak to the kind of treatment that instills in people an attitude that some aspect of what contributes to who they are -- be that their race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation -- must define their identity. It is the feeling of being reduced to something lesser than your whole self, and it will likely remain with Sam throughout his career. "I wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player, not Michael Sam the gay football player" he tells a packed room of reporters during his allotted time with the media at the skills combine for prospective players in Indianapolis last month.
After Sam's historic ESPN interview, several front offices around the league suggested that Sam's announcement would hurt his draft stock, according to eight anonymous NFL executives and coaches. And while Sam's draft stock may not affect how successful he is on the field, it has important repercussions. While the most recent collective bargaining agreement has standardized NFL rookie contracts, signing bonuses are still determined based on when a player is drafted. The league operates under an unofficial sliding scale system, meaning the first pick will receive a higher bonus than all subsequent picks. A player like Sam who is projected to be drafted in the third or fourth round but is actually selected in the fifth or sixth will suffer a significant drop in guaranteed money in a league where such assurances are so valuable due to the looming fear of significant injury.
But even this monetary difference seems less significant compared to what it suggests about the NFL today. It's difficult for the media and much of the American public to resist the temptation to turn Sam into a symbol for LGBTQ activism: a pioneer not unlike Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, and others who changed their sport and the world. And as a result Sam will be forced to pay the price of the trailblazer, accepting his abuse with a kind of heroic stoicism in a sport notorious for its macho culture. The NFL's official statement in response to Sam's announcement offered admiration of Sam's honesty and courage and the assertion that any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. The statement anticipates "welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014."
But as recently as last season, other NFL players have faced criticism for public support of LGBTQ rights and have received no such support from the league or their teams. In 2013, Minnesota Vikings former punter Chris Kluwe took to Deadspin.com alleging in an editorial that he was fired because of his support of marriage equality. Kluwe is currently seeking legal action against the Vikings after retaining a coach whom he'd identified for making frequent homophobic remarks and whom the punter believed was instrumental in his termination. In 2012 Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo received the ire of Maryland delegate Emmett C. Burns over his work with Marylanders for Marriage Equality, a pro-LGBTQ rights group.* Burns wrote a letter to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti demanding that Bisciotti "inhibit such expression from (an) employee and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions." Ayanbadejo was not punished by the Ravens for his work with the organization, but neither the team nor the league spoke out publicly in defense of Ayanbadejo or against Burns. In both cases, the players' opinions expressed through gay rights advocacy were their own, and they ensured that these opinions did not reflect the views of their respective organizations or the NFL.
Much has improved for LGBTQ rights supporters and the community over the last two years including the ratification of same sex-marriage laws in several states and a major Supreme Court decision. But as the national landscape on gay rights has shifted, the NFL must make good on its promise to welcome and support Michael Sam and those who will follow in his legacy by respecting Sam's wishes to be treated like a football player rather than a gay football player. It means that the league and especially the organization that drafts him must ensure his safety and well being and provide him with every opportunity to succeed at the game's highest level.
Sam is not the first gay NFL player, but he will be the first openly gay player next season. His journey, no matter how much he tries to downplay it, will be defined by his brave announcement upon entering the league. Questions of his sexuality will be asked to every opposing team he plays. He will be subjected to crude and insensitive slurs and remarks by spectators at games and by faceless bigots on the internet. But as Sam works his hardest to be the best player and teammate he can be, we too must work our hardest to shed from ourselves the weight of centuries of ignorance and intolerance. I have faith that the NFL will take little time to see Sam as nothing more than a warrior in a helmet and pads once he suits up. Players past and present have already taken to social media to announce their support for the draft entrant. The only question that Michael Sam wants answered: when will we stop asking ours?
*You can also read Ayanbadejo's Huffington Post editorial here.