If Michael Sam does well in the NFL, the movie that will no doubt eventually be made about him will have a much more satisfying plot arc.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, Sam, the SEC’s reigning defensive player of the year who helped lead the Missouri Tigers to a 12-win season (and picked up a surprising #5 ranking by the end of the year), came out as gay. It would appear that after decades of waiting, Sam’s name finally became the answer to the ever-present question of “Who will the first openly gay NFL player be?”
Sam’s not in the NFL yet—before he came out, he was projected as a mid-round pick as a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker in a defensive scheme similar to the one that the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks use—but barring some shocking homophobia on the part of all 32 NFL teams, he will be. (Currently, the offshore sportsbook Bovada puts the over/under on his draft position at 125, or midway through the fourth round.)
Some of that shocking homophobia appeared in a Sports Illustrated article that interviewed a handful of NFL personnel people under conditions of anonymity. Quotes there included things like, “I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet” and “it’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”
Those statements, though, ignore some very important lessons we’ve already learned about Sam and the game—and about the parts of the country that Sam has spent his time, including Missouri, SEC country, and his home state of Texas.
Because regardless of whether or not an NFL personnel man thinks football is ready for an openly gay player, it’s already had one: Michael Sam came out to his teammates last season, as Mizzou took twelve games, which suggests that the “chemical balance” of that locker room was probably just fine. (Or, if Texas enjoyed that same sort of “imbalance,” Mack Brown might still be coaching.) Sentiments like that talk down to a variety of stereotypes: They suggest that the athletes who respected Sam’s privacy enough not to out him before he was ready and who supported him through a hugely successful season are secretly bigots who can’t stand to be in the same room as a gay person; they suggest that the NFL is fundamentally intolerant.
It should also be noted that Sam wasn’t a walk-on at UC-Berkeley or some other supposed bastion of progressiveness; he was a Texas-bred player who throughout high school, according to OutSports, “considered himself bisexual and dated girls,” who ultimately came out as gay in the SEC—a conference that does not exactly represent a region of the country reknowned for its open-mindedness. The OutSports story about the defensive end features this tidbit about Sam:
His teammates were universally accepting and he said he did not have any problems on the team about it. He said that he even occasionally took straight teammates to gay clubs, including at the recent Cotton Bowl in Dallas, a sign of their embrace of him and the fun they had hanging out with the gregarious, outgoing Sam.
Contrast that with the statements from an anonymous NFL assistant coach who told Sports Illustrated that “there are guys in locker rooms that, maturity-wise, cannot handle it or deal with the thought of that.” The notion that there are NFL locker rooms that make Missouri’s look like a big gay fantasyland seems hard to believe—which means that perhaps entrenched, anonymous NFL personnel folks are revealing more of their own prejudices than those of the players he claims to be speaking for.
Which is relevant, because people in places like Missouri, where Sam played, or Texas, where he grew up and, later, took his teammates to gay clubs, get stereotyped as backwards and bigoted—but how much of those stereotypes are people taking their own prejudices and projecting them outward, as seems to be happening with the personnel men interviewed by Sports Illustrated?
The Dallas Morning News, meanwhile, explored the question from a fan’s perspective this morning, asking “Would you be comfortable with a gay Cowboys player?”
When the DMN posed this question in February 2013, roughly a year before Michael Sam’s announcement, the question of “would you support an openly gay player on the Cowboys” was an intellectual, abstract exercise, and 54% of the people who responded said they would. Today, on the other hand, when the DMN posted that same question, 72.23 percent of respondents saying they were comfortable with the idea. Maybe because there’s a face to the name, and that face is SEC’s defensive player of the year, a determined athlete who would be a valuable addition to a team with massive holes on that side of the ball.
(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)