Sunday night, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam announced that he is gay.
With the NFL Scouting Combine just around the corner, the Sam is set to become the first openly gay player in the NFL. Of course, he is not the first gay pro football player.
Dave Kopay has written a book about his life as a gay man who played pro football. He was with Outsports.com editor Cyd Ziegler this past week for Sam's announcement. So was Wade Davis, who wrote a column in this week's Sports Illustrated praising Sam. Davis came out after his career ended, explaining that homophobia kept him in the closet.
ESPN recently featured Jerry Smith's history as a gay Washington Redskins tight end in the 1970's. Smith died of AIDS in 1986, and his uniform has become part of the AIDS quilt, but he never publicly acknowledged he was gay. Head coach Vince Lombardi, who had a gay brother, demanded a homophobia-free locker room but not even the legendary Lombardi could insulate him from the mentality of the era.
“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” Sam told The New York Times. “I just want to own my truth.” Good for him, and it's great that some NFL executives have responded maturely.
For example, one time pro star John Elway, now a VP with the Denver Broncos said
"I applaud Michael Sam and wish him the very best as he continues the pursuit of his NFL dream. We will evaluate Michael just like any other draft prospect — on the basis of his ability, character and NFL potential. His announcement will have no effect on how we see him as a football player."
Sam, a unanimous All-America selection, was the Southeastern Conference's co-Defensive Player of the Year. He notched an SEC-best 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss last season. He is a lock to be drafted. No matter what Elway said, the NFL has been a haven for homophobia. Sam's candor could impact his draft number, simply because team owners might opt out of the media attention his selection will induce.
Just last week New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma expressed his fear that the closed minded nature of some athletes will generate a level of resistance. There's former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe now charging that he was fired because he supported gay marriage publicly. Also, San Francisco 49er Chris Culliver last year threatened that gays better not even think about coming out in the NFL anytime soon. (Tough break, buddy.) You know what it is- straight vanity; the thought that every gay guy in the shower is staring at you.
Frankly, the locker room culture can be brutal. All you have to do is witness what happened with the Miami Dolphins this season. It is a macho environment, which presumptively concludes anyone who can't cut it is a 'faggot.' Gay slurs are commonplace in these environments. I lived with them for years. Michael Sam's forthright candor will help alter that mindless dynamic. The guy is a leader who can cut it. He is creating a path for others by his courage today. I wish I had done more when I was younger. Maybe it would have moved the needle sooner.
It does not matter if pro football is ready for an openly gay player just yet. The decision is not theirs to make. It is going to be acceptable a lot sooner than later because Michael Sams are emerging in every sport. They win, like Ireen Wust in Sochi this week, because of their athletic prowess, not bedroom art.
I have always felt the game is all about who can help you win. If you can throw a game winning pass or knock in the winning run, pro athletes will want you on their team, even if you drink, smoke, or go down on other guys. It will be more so in years ahead because of athletes like Michael Sam. They will be judged solely by their performance on the field with their teammates, as it should be, and as it should always have been.