Michael Sam, a defensive lineman for the University of Missouri’s football team, has told the world that he is gay. This statement is a big deal because Mr. Sam is projected to be a high draft pick this season in the National Football League. He could become the professional league’s first openly gay player.
Mr. Sam should be commended for his courage. He has put his future career on the line — and potentially millions of dollars in salary and endorsements — to be true to himself. Mr. Sam said this week that he had heard rumors swirling about his sexuality, and that he wanted to set the terms of his coming out.
He told his teammates last year at a preseason practice. The coach asked players to stand up and say something important about themselves. Mr. Sam used two simple words: “I’m gay.”
There are still no openly gay men in the NFL, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, or Major League Baseball. Mr. Sam may become a pioneer, just as Jackie Robinson did by breaking down big league baseball’s “color barrier” in 1947.
Someone has to go first. As an African-American man, Mr. Sam is carrying the torch for black people in the gay community who have historically endured harsh judgment and homophobic backlash.
With his honesty, Mr. Sam will become a role model for young gay people who suffer in silence and often struggle with the decision of whether to come out. If Mr. Sam can make it in the NFL, where there is a crass culture that includes homophobia, racism, and sexism, his success will indicate a new level of tolerance in athletics and in American society.
It’s troubling that after Mr. Sam’s announcement, some NFL employees questioned whether the league is ready for an openly gay player. All season, sports talk has been about Mr. Sam’s performance on the field — first-team All-American, Associated Press defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference — and the likelihood that he could be drafted as early as the third round.
“There’s nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of the locker room,” said an NFL assistant coach, speaking anonymously to Sports Illustrated. “If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it?”
The answer: like grown men. They get paid big money to throw, kick, and run with a ball. They work hard and their talents should not be minimized, but there should be just as much pressure for progress on athletes as on other professionals. They don’t get a pass because they play what is perceived to be a “man’s game.”
That the NFL discussed a player who is not even part of the organization is promising. That it welcomed Mr. Sam — the draft isn’t until May — is momentous.
The league’s statement reads almost like a challenge to any team general managers who might want to overlook him: “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. 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.”
Mr. Sam made a gutsy move by coming out. His peers and potential colleagues now must stand up and support him.