Ben Pickman, ’15
Former University of Missouri linebacker Michael Sam shocked the sports world on Sunday, February 9th. He said he was gay. The fact that there is a gay athlete in major American sports is not shocking to say the least, as plenty of current and former athletes are gay. But the story is that he openly admitted it. In any other realm of contemporary society, this would be a complete non-story that nobody really cares about. Everybody still loves listening to Elton John. People wake up and watch newscaster Robin Roberts. Ellen DeGeneres is beloved by thousands of TV fans. Anderson Cooper still reports hard-hitting news stories. But in sports, Sam is breaking new ground. He is set to become the first openly gay player in the history of the NFL.
In May when the NFL draft occurs, Sam will be one of the most watched names. News outlets that don’t cover sports will pay close attention to where he gets picked. Many scouts think he’ll get drafted in the third or fourth round. Some say the fifth, but the SEC Defensive Player of the Year can play. At the next level, if he gets to the quarterback on third down and plays hard on special teams, his sexuality will be forgotten, just as it should be. Remember Linsanity? Remember the Manti Te’o incident regarding his “girlfriend?” Both were seen as distractions, but they aren’t distractions anymore.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in sports when he became the first African American athlete to play in Major League Baseball. That came nearly a decade before the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But today, sports figures aren’t the leaders of movements. They are the followers. They don’t begin waves; they just ride off at the ends of them.
Before entering the NFL draft, all athletes must attend at least three years of college. They may not go to a lot of classes, but they are exposed to different people in terms of culture and sexuality. Michael Sam told his teammates back in August that he was gay and it didn’t affect his team at all, as evidenced by their 12-2 season.
Hey sports world, BREAKING NEWS: working with gay people does not interfere with any possible success. You know what interferes with success? Not being productive on Sundays when the games are played. Not completing passes or tackling with proper technique.
When Michael Sam’s story broke, many athletes were not shy about their opinions. New York Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas was one of the more vocal football players to comment on the story. “I think society is ready for it and America’s ready for it, but I don’t think the NFL is.” Thomas went onto say, “things are changing, and certain change is inevitable. We have to look at him like a brother and can’t treat him any different. But that could be difficult for some people, just the way our locker rooms work.” Thomas is not alone in his sentiments about Sam, but memo to NFL players: change is often a good thing. If you didn’t make any changes, you would be getting concussions every play and would be putting your entire life in even more jeopardy than it is in now. Adjust.
Coming from the best conference in college football, Sam will likely make contributions on the field, but his contributions off the field will be more important. He’s going to be a role model for teenage boys, a hero for gay high school and college students who live and breathe the game of football. Sam will become a talking point just like NBA player Jason Collins was when he said he was gay last April.
As of this writing in mid-February, Collins is still unemployed. But that has nothing to do with his sexuality and has everything to do with the fact that he is a 35 year old center whose only use on the NBA hardwood is six free fouls and another big body to defend against other bruisers.
Unlike Collins’ career, Sam’s career is just beginning. But once it begins, nobody will care that he’s gay. They’ll care how he plays.