Michael Sam, in the vernacular, is a force. As a pass rusher at Missouri, he led the powerful SEC in sacks and tackles for losses last season and was named the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in one survey. He is projected as a third-to-fifth-round selection in the NFL draft this May, laying a foundation for a productive professional career.
We only can hope his passage is that smooth.
Michael Sam is gay. That means he is the landmark figure we have cautiously awaited in American sports, positioned to be the first openly homosexual player in NFL history. We’d like to believe enough hatred has been purged and homophobia wiped away in this land, allowing a fair pathway for Sam and other gay athletes to build successful livelihoods without prejudice.
“I’m not afraid to tell the world who I am. I’m Michael Sam: I’m a college graduate. I’m African American, and I’m gay. I’m comfortable in my skin,” he said on ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” program, which joined the New York Times in breaking the story Sunday night.
“I just want to go to the team who drafts me, because that team knows about me, knows that I’m gay, and also knows that I work hard. That’s the team I want to go to.”
But let’s not be naive. He is about to enter a world where, this past season, a classic locker-room bully named Richie Incognito was suspended by the Miami Dolphins after allegedly harrassing a teammate, Jonathan Martin, with abuse that included vicious gay and racial slurs. While NFL attitudes have become considerably more enlightened over a generation, there are still more Richie Incognitos on player rosters than anybody wants to admit. And even if the haters keep their protests to themselves, they will be ready to make life hell for Sam whether he’s in their locker room or playing for an opposing team.
“There’s such a stigma with gay and homosexuals within male sports,” the retiring Washington linebacker, London Fletcher, told the NFL Network. “It would be very difficult for that first person to come out.”
“I think that he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted,” said New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. “I don’t want people to just naturally assume, like, ‘Oh, we’re all homophobic.’ That’s really not the case. Imagine if he’s the guy next to me and, you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me. How am I supposed to respond?”
What should be viewed as a progressive adventure in human relations, an important step of tolerance in a traditional caveman culture, realistically is a courageous walk over hot coals into the unknown. Maybe Sam will find NFL life to be as accepting as he found at Missouri, where he was treated well by teammates after he told them collectively last summer what most already knew: He was gay, having dated a fellow Mizzou athlete. “Coaches just wanted to know a little about ourselves, our majors, where we’re from, and something that no one knows about you,” said Sam, recalling the experience. “And I used that opportunity just to tell them that I was gay. And their reaction was like, `Michael Sam finally told us.’
“I was kind of scared, even though they already knew. Just to see their reaction was awesome. They supported me from Day One. I couldn’t have better teammates. … I’m telling you what: I wouldn’t have the strength to do this today if I didn’t know how much support they’d given me this past semester.”
Yet it’s unrealistic to think Sam will receive the same level of support in an NFL environment, where lucrative salaries create a comfort zone for players to speak out and lash out — and express concern that a gay player might look at them in the shower. That threat is why some franchises will intentionally shy away from drafting Sam, not wanting the intense scrutiny and widespread attention that will accompany his historic leap to training camp. This is a major story in our lifetime. As Sam said, “I understand how big this is. It’s a big deal. No one has done this before. And it’s kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be … I want to be a football player in the NFL.”
The team that drafts him will have to endure a media frenzy disproportionate to the rest of the team narrative — which, for instance, is one reason Tim Tebow no longer is in the league. Whether the subject is a gay player or, in Tebow’s case, a highly popular player based on his faith, looks and charisma, a franchise doesn’t need the distraction of a non-star player dominating the everyday story line. It would be far easier for a team to draft Sam if he was sure to be an instant difference-maker. It’s much more convenient to take a pass on him as a middle-round pick.
No one should doubt his inner strength in the journey ahead. As he told ESPN’s Chris Connelly, Sam has been a surivalist from his early years growing up in Hitchcock, Texas. “I endured so much in my past: seeing my older brother killed from a gunshot wound, not knowing that my oldest sister died when she was a baby and I never got the chance to meet her,” he said. “My second oldest brother went missing in 1998, and me and my little sister were the last ones to see him … my other two brothers have been in and out of jail since 8th grade, currently both in jail.
“Telling the world I’m gay is nothing compared to that.”
There is a major difference: If dealing with personal tragedy is done privately, his decision to come out and embrark on an NFL career makes him a global figure. He knows what’s coming in some sectors. “There will be negativity, negative reactions. I expect that,” he said. “Everyone can say hurtful things and hateful things; I don’t let stuff like that distract me. But there are going to be positives. The positives will outweigh the negative.”
How will he react when an NFL player challenges or mocks his sexuality? It will happen, and it may happen often. “I mean, people will talk about the stereotype of gays being in the locker room … to me, I think that it’s a little stereotyped that gay people are predators. It’s just very offensive,” Sam said.
And don’t dare call him weak. “If you led the SEC with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for losses?” he told Connelly with a laugh. “If a gay person did that, I wouldn’t call that person weak.”
The league issued a statement supporting Sam’s decision. “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” it said. “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.”
That could be more a case of wishful thinking than an actual welcome wagon, starting with the initial wave of Michael Sam drama at the draft combine. A team will select him in May — Roger Goodell will make sure of it — but if Sam happens not to survive the final cut, there will be backlash from the LGBT community even if he wasn’t worthy of the roster. “Same old Neanderthals,” they’ll cry, when, in fact, the reason an NBA team hasn’t signed Jason Collins since he came out last spring is because there’s little demand for a 35-year-old backup center.
In a perfect world, Michael Sam would be a major hit in the NFL. He’d be taken in the third round by a team that values his abilities, make an Opening Day roster, earn a starting spot, cash in by the millions and play in the league for a dozen years without hearing a single slur or insult related to his sexuality.
That perfect world, of course, would be Pluto.