the NFL and Sam, hopefully a love story

Michael Sam is gay.  That’s a statement that is getting so wonderfully pedestrian; it’s wonderful to think that in most cases the immediate response would be, “Who cares?”  For Michael Sam, it’s a little more noteworthy, though.  Sam is a defensive linemen for Missouri, and about to enter the NFL Draft.  If drafted (he’s expected to go in the middle rounds), and if he makes the roster of whichever team drafts him, he’ll be the first openly gay player to play in the NFL, or in any of the four major American sports.  That’s worth talking about.

Something else that’s noteworthy about Sam is his integrity.  The fact that he’s gay has not exactly been kept under a tight lock; he came out to his entire team last year.  His team, and his coaching staff was very supportive of him for the rest of his college career.  But the fact that he decided to come out publicly to the media before the draft is incredible.  Sam easily could’ve kept his orientation under wraps until after the draft.  He could’ve come out after he had secured a place on an NFL roster, and nobody – myself included – would’ve criticized him for that.

That’s not what Sam did, though.  He made it a point to publicly declare his homosexuality before the draft, before he’d signed a contract, before he earned they payday he’s been working towards for years.  That was an intentional decision for him.  He told ESPN in an interview,

“I just want to go to the team who drafts me, because that team knows about me, knows that I’m gay, and also knows that I work hard. That’s the team I want to go to.”

He doesn’t want a team drafting him without knowing in full what they’re getting.  He’s even putting his future career at risk.  It’s not out of the realm of possibility that all 32 teams decide that they don’t want to deal with the inevitable controversy drafting him will bring.  But Sam thinks it’s more important that a team knows exactly what their signing when they draft him.  That’s class at a whole new level.

So how does Sam’s prospects look, being the first openly gay player to enter the draft?  It’s tough to tell.  Other leagues in North America have such different reactions to dealing with homosexuality, they’re not much a predictor.  While most leagues are taking active steps to stop homophobic language, they way they handle gay players varies.

Last year NBA player Jason Collins came out after entering free agency.  He was the first active player in one of the four major sports to come out.  While that was an important step, the fact is that no NBA team was willing to sign him to contract after he came out.  The league claims that Collins’ coming out has nothing to do with why he hasn’t found a new team, but it’s tough to imagine it’s not a factor.

MLS midfielder Robbie Rogers also came out last year while he was playing in England.  Rogers did get a contract, and spent half a season with the LA Galaxy.  Even more heartening, there were no reports of blowback from fans, other players, or coaches.  Everyone seems fully supportive of him, and the only criticism he’s faced is based strictly on his play on the field.  However, MLS isn’t considered to be a major sport in America, and subsequently Rogers’ exposure has been limited.

So the question remains, how will the NFL deal with an openly gay player potentially in the league?  If the past is any indication, it doesn’t seem hopeful.  It’s not like the NFL is known for being the most gay friendly community in the world.  Just one month ago, former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe claimed that he was fired just for speaking out for gay rights.

Homophobia and the NFL go hand in hand.  One columnist said that the NFL set the standard for homophobia, pointing out that the NFL is the only major league who has yet to fine – or even punish in any way – a player for using an anti-gay slur.  There’s even players who claim they’ve been questioned by teams about their sexual orientation at the NFL combine (pre-Draft workout).

So what can Sam expect?  Let Keith Olbermann explain how things seem to be going so far:

If you didn’t spend the 5 minutes to watch that, you should.  Olbermann discusses a number of current and former NFL scouts and executives who don’t think the league is ready for an openly gay player, all while strictly keeping their own anonymity.

That kind of cowardly attack on Sam is extremely troubling.  Just the other day I was discussing how one of the best virtues of professional sports is the fact that it’s a meritocracy.  Ideally, it shouldn’t matter in the slightest what color, gender, religion, or sexual orientation a player is.  If they play well, they’ll earn a spot.  But apparently a number of NFL execs don’t see it that way.  That’s the kind of tired prejudice I would expect out of a player like Richie Incognito, not the top brass.  Speaking of that, since Incognito is the poster boy for bigoted culture in the NFL, did he have anything to say about Sam?

Ooooh… that can’t look good for the execs.

I’m hopeful things work out well for Sam.  I want nothing more than for some team to take a chance on him and give him an honest chance to prove himself.  He should be judged on his ability, and nothing else.  I’m proud to live in a time to see somebody as brave as him take this step.  I’d be even more proud to see my optimism for the league justified.

At the very least there’s this:  The Westboro Baptist Church have already announced that they’ll protest Sam’s school this weekend.  If ever you do something that brings those hateful bastards out in protest, chances are you’re doing something right and worthwhile in your life.  So Michael Sam, I thank you for that.

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