Michael Sam is preparing to become the first public openly gay man on an NFL roster. It’s not clear how his stock will be affected. What is clear is this is a major step forward for American professional sports, one that is well overdue.
Sam will not be the gay Jackie Robinson. Thankfully, he will not have to be. Robinson predated the modern Civil Rights movement, and was out in front before broader social forces acted on entrenched views. Sam, unlike many of his closeted predecessors, joins the NFL amidst a sea-change in American culture. His burden, for the most part, will be confined to football.
Seventeen states have already approved gay marriage. Eleven of those did so through popular votes or implied consent in state legislatures. A majority of Americans support gay marriage. Recent polls suggest an approval rating better than 80 percent among individuals under 30. How often and how sensitively gay characters are portrayed in popular culture has shifted dramatically.
An ignorant minority remains. They can be found through targeted Twitter searches. But such foul hatred is clearly losing traction.
Fearmongers in NFL front offices have came out with their predictable and (of course) anonymous “I don’t have a problem, but other folks will” quotes. But real life examples contradict these purported disaster scenarios.
Missouri is one case study. Sam came out privately to his teammates before 2013. The Tigers won the SEC East and had perhaps the best season in school history. Sam more than doubled his sack and tackles for loss totals to earn SEC defensive player of the year honors. Maybe his revelation had a positive effect on the team. Maybe it had no effect. But what it did not do was become a “distraction” or unravel an already well-knit locker room. Teammates viewed him as a friend and teammate.
Another case study is the military. Armed service has its own similar, though far more intense brand of “locker room culture.” Fearmongers within the military raised nearly identical concerns when “Don’t Ask. Don’t Tell” was abolished. None of them came to fruition.
How will NFL players react to an openly gay man in their midst? Probably like human beings.
Most players are under 30. They have their own extended families, cohorts of friends and life experiences. Most spent multiple years living on large college campuses with relative diversity. Nearly all, statistically, have played with a gay teammate, many knowingly. According to You Can Play’s Wade Davis, there are players who have come out to their teams but not publicly.
Many players and prominent league figures have already expressed support for Sam. Longtime Vikings and Ravens center Matt Birk played with 10-12 players he knew were gay over his career. It was “never an issue.” Former Houston Oilers acknowledged playing with gay teammates in the 1990s, terming it “no big deal.” There’s evidence the epitome of old school, Vince Lombardi, knew about and supported gay players in the 1960s.
If problems happen, it is incumbent on the NFL to stamp them out. The league claims to be an equal opportunity employer. Discrimination based on sexual orientation is banned in the collective bargaining agreement. Front offices should not be asking about sexual orientation. If “locker room culture” breeds hostility and hatred, there is no place for it.
Some front offices and owners may shy away from Michael Sam. But we suspect some won’t. Perhaps it’s naive humanism, but the most interesting facet of this story may be how big it ends up not being.
[Photo via USA Today Sports]