Typically an article like this would begin with something clever. A witty pun or a topical joke used to entice someone to dig further.
But I feel this deserves more. Any attempt at humor would diminish and, honestly, disrespect the incredible bravery shown by former Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam.
In an interview with ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” Sam has come out as “an openly, proud gay man.”
“I’m not afraid to tell the world who I am,” Sam said in the interview with ESPN’s Chris Connelly. “I’m Michael Sam, I’m a college graduate, I’m African-American and I’m gay.”
Sam recently finished his career at Missouri and is an NFL draft prospect, something that already comes with a heavy amount of scrutiny.
Now the limelight will shine even brighter on the young football player.
In 2014, this shouldn’t be big news. In the U.S., we have openly gay teachers, doctors, politicians, even pastors, and yet a major professional athlete admitting he or she is gay remains somewhat of a taboo.
There has never been an openly gay player actively playing in the four major American professional sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL).
Although former Washington Wizards center Jason Collins came out in April, he has not played for an NBA team since his announcement. LA Galaxy midfielder Robbie Rogers made the same courageous announcement in January 2013, but Major League Soccer isn’t given as much attention as the NFL.
There have even been former NFL players who have come out as gay after retirement — Dave Kopay, Kwame Harris and Wade Davis to name a few — but never someone who is, or is seeking to, actively play in the league.
What Sam is attempting to do is break into the most popular and over-analyzed sport in America.
Sam is putting his career, his livelihood and, to be frank, even his life, on the line so he can be a role model and a leader for countless others across the country.
“I understand how big this is,” Sam told “Outside the Lines.” “No one has done this before. And it’s kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be … I want to be a football player in the NFL.”
I don’t pretend to understand what going through adversity is truly like. I am an upper-middle class, heterosexual, white, liberal male, but that does not diminish the respect that I have for what Sam is doing.
His courage and fearlessness are something that could pave the way for the future.
But now that the announcement has been made, another hurdle must be jumped: getting drafted.
Sam — projected as a mid-round draft prospect by nfldraftscout.com — is set to continue preparing for the NFL draft in the hopes of being selected in May.
It would be completely naive to pretend that his draft stock will not be affected with this coming to light.
Even with all of the talent he possesses — Sam led the SEC with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss in 2013 — the media circus that is sure to follow him wherever he goes might make NFL general managers think twice before pulling the trigger and selecting him.
It shouldn’t, though. If this were an ideal world, Sam would be judged on his football accomplishments and not his sexual orientation. In 2013, Sam had an incredible season for the Tigers, being named first team All-American and the SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
“It shouldn’t matter,” Sam said about coaches and players reacting to his sexuality. “If I work hard, if I make plays, that’s all that should matter. ‘Can he help us win games, is he a team player,’ that’s all that should matter.”
“Sports Illustrated” reported there are anonymous sources in the NFL who believe Sam’s presence in the locker room will prove to be a distraction, which is an argument that is not only ridiculous, but offensive to the gay community.
“I mean, people will talk about the stereotype of gays being in the locker room … to me, I think that it’s a little stereotyped that gay people are predators,” Sam said. “It’s just very offensive.”
Sam said in the interview he told his teammates at Missouri in August before the 2013 season began. If his coming out to the team was a distraction, it wasn’t a very good one. The Tigers finished with a record of 12-2, tied for the best in program history, and finished the year ranked No. 5 in the country.
Since the announcement, there has been a large number of people come out in support of Sam.
Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams took to Twitter to back Sam.
“I could care less about a man’s sexual preference! i care about winning games and being respectful in the locker room!,” Williams tweeted Sunday evening from his personal account, @DeAngeloRB.
The NFL issued a statement on their stance, which said “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with the ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”
Despite all of the positive support, it is the detractors — whether they be players or coaches — who could change Sam’s fate.
If even one player in the locker room comes forward to the general manager, the owner or the coach and voices his opinion against Sam, it could be the difference between Sam being drafted or not.
I am asking, nay I am begging NFL owners to try and not see Sam just for his sexual orientation but to see him as a player. Look at his résumé to judge his abilities — don’t base your decision to employ him on a factor that has nothing to do with football.
At the end of the day, it will come down to just one team deciding that it wants Sam and the barrier will be broken.
Only time will tell if Sam will be rightfully rewarded for his bravery or not. But one thing is clear to me.
People like Sam, Collins, Rogers and the many others deserve to be celebrated more than any other athlete. What they are doing reaches beyond sports and into the culture of America.
Michael Sam, I am in awe of you and what you are doing, and want to thank you for the step you are taking toward a brighter future.
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