There are no words that could adequately illustrate the respect and admiration I have for former Missouri defensive end and highly regarded pro football prospect Michael Sam.
In just a few short months, barring extreme and unexpected bigotry, he’ll become the first openly gay athlete drafted into the National Football League, or any other of the four major North American leagues. When he plays in his first game late in the summer, he’ll officially stand alone as history’s only active homosexual male professional athlete – among the dozens, maybe hundreds, who have quietly done so in the past – to take the field, court, or ice publicly confident and secure in who he is.
This, of course, is because longtime NBA center Jason Collins never found another job in the league after he came out last April.
It’s impossible to measure Sam’s strength, and that has nothing to do with the fitness testing he’ll endure at this month’s NFL combine.
It takes remarkable courage and fortitude to not only reveal what he says teammates and many opponents already knew, and have since August, but to do so in advance of the draft. With two words, “I’m gay,” he put his career, his livelihood, on the line.
There are some NFL executives who will think twice about selecting the Cotton Bowl-winning first team All-American and reigning SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year in spite of his incredible talent, and others who likely won’t consider the notion at all.
And that’s pathetic.
Sports Illustrated spoke with eight NFL executives and coaches who, according to the report, project a drop in Sam’s draft stock on account of the uncertain locker room culture and the media circus his presence will create. Before his announcement, he was projected as a mid-round pick, with some having him going as high as the third-round.
“I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,” an NFL player personnel assistant told SI.com on the condition of anonymity. “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.”
An NFL assistant coach mentioned in the article said Sam’s decision was “not a smart move” because it affected his potential earnings.
Having never spoken with Sam, only heard him speak eloquently of his views, I’m quite confident money wasn’t on his mind when he divulged his most personal feelings to the entire world for its simultaneous support and ignorance.
Football is America’s game. The NFL is America’s league. It’s time its parties do better than represent America’s divided beliefs and embrace Sam in unison, just as his teammates did in college.
“I never had a problem with my teammates,” Sam told the New York Times of his classmates who voted him the program’s most valuable player last season. “Some of my coaches were worried, but there was never an issue. Once I became official to my teammates, I knew who I was. I knew that I was gay. And I knew that I was Michael Sam, who’s a Mizzou football player who happens to be gay.”
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” the NFL said in a statement. “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.”
Sadly, while a nice gesture, a blanket statement from the league won’t ensure Sam is drafted where his talent suggests he should be, or that he’ll be selected at all, hard as that is to imagine. It doesn’t prevent the locker room hazing and homophobic bias he may potentially encounter from future teammates or even coaches when he arrives in his new city for mini-camp. It doesn’t remove the feeling of discomfort some will feel when Sam steps into the shower following a practice or game. Undoubtedly, he’ll hear his share of unsettling comments pour in from across the line of scrimmage and the stands, and there's little the NFL can do about that, either.
It’s no secret the league has a problem, between punter Chris Kluwe’s reported dismissal from the Vikings for standing up for gay rights or details of verbal harassment taking place throughout locker rooms around the NFL, most notably in Miami in 2013. And, who could forget when players were asked at last year’s combine if they liked women?
The examples go on and on and on.
People are who they are, for better or worse. Those who disapprove of another person’s sexual preference, creed, culture, or color are guilty of thinking that shall hopefully one day be widely considered archaic. We’re heading in that direction, but any search of various social media platforms in the wake of Sam’s news will most certainly tell you we’re not there yet.
When Sam went to bed Sunday night, I hope he was settling in for the best and most relaxing night of sleep of his life. I cannot fathom the weight that must have been lifted from his shoulders when he told the world a secret he never had to share. I say that not because he should have kept it to himself, but rather in light of the fact it’s not the public’s business to evaluate.
I’m happy to see Sam has already received support from past and present players around the league. I look forward to applauding the team that’s brave enough to welcome Sam with open arms and declare, “He’s talented, and that’s all that matters.” That general manager would be the modern day Branch Rickey.
I hope, one day, stories like Sam’s aren’t stories at all. Perhaps, a decade from now, when he’s an NFL veteran, he’ll be among the leaders of a locker room that’s welcoming to other gay players. By then, maybe there will be more than one openly homosexual player on a team, never mind in the league.
But, until then, Sam will be the first, a pioneer and a symbol for young up-and-comers and possibly veterans alike. As if it isn’t hard enough being a rookie.
Three of Sam’s siblings, two brothers and a sister, have passed away. Two other brothers are currently in jail. The Texas native is familiar with adversity and he’s coped with tragedy. By comparison, this is easy. Sam has yet to put on his draft cap and he’s already displayed he’s mentally tough enough for the NFL; I only hope the league is ready for him.
Thank you, Michael Sam. I don’t know you, but I hope one day that changes and I can shake your hand. If we’re lucky, we’ll see you in New England. The Patriots could use a player of your character. Oh, and another pass-rusher.
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About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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