In interviews with The New York Times and ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” published Sunday night, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, a graduating senior, said he is gay. Unless another, even more accomplished football player comes out between now and September, it is likely that he will become the first openly gay athlete to play a down in the National Football League—or to play in any of the other Big Four professional men’s sports leagues. “It’s a big deal,” Sam acknowledged. He added, “I just want to own my truth.” Sam’s truth has been known since August by his Mizzou coaches and teammates—the same teammates who voted him the Most Valuable Player of their 12-2, Cotton Bowl-winning squad.
But will the NFL have him? “From a purely football perspective, his decision to come out prior to May’s NFL draft will make his path to the league daunting, eight NFL executives and coaches told SI.com,” reported Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans Sunday evening. The argument seems to be a more-sorrow-than-in-anger shrug: He should be able to ply his trade, sure, but between the locker room and the media, which team wants the distraction? Sample quotes, all anonymous: “It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.” “There’s no question about it. It’s human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote ‘break that barrier?’” “A general manager is going to ask, ‘Why are we going to do that to ourselves?’” (Those last two quotes are doubly anonymous: an unnamed somebody quoting an imaginary, second unnamed somebody. Profiles in courage!) So it isn’t really a “purely football perspective.” And never mind that Manti Te’o—he of the fake dead girlfriend—had no problem getting drafted by the San Diego Chargers a year ago despite the distraction factor. Anyway, it’s all the media’s fault!
Sam should get drafted. The Times reports that most experts peg him as a third-round pick (there are seven rounds); ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper, Jr. ranked him a second- or third-rounder during the season; his ESPN draft grade is a 58, which is typically that of a fifth-rounder. Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim notes that winning Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year has lately been the equivalent of getting your draft ticket punched. Should Sam go undrafted, the NFL will be hanging up a “No Gays Allowed” sign.
Sam said he decided to come out now— just two weeks before the crucial NFL Draft Combine, where scouts will examine the players in anticipation of May’s draft—in part because he had a sense that there were rumors and that the truth would out sooner rather than later. (Here is a November post from an unofficial Denver Broncos message board positing that Sam is gay.)
The draft drama is what makes this gigantic. Not that it isn’t already huge: Sam was the Defensive Player of the Year of the SEC, college football’s best conference, which means he immediately became the most prominent active openly gay American male athlete. But the NFL is, well, the NFL, and Sam has just shined the spotlight not only on himself but on the 32 NFL teams.
A comparison to Jason Collins, the National Basketball Association player who came out last spring, is instructive. It’s not a competition, but—ignoring for a moment that Collins did it first—Sam’s coming out is a much bigger deal. Collins came out at age 34 and near or at the conclusion of his career as a professional athlete, having made a living playing ball for 12 years. Sam came out at age 24 and the very beginning of his career, with all of his earning years ahead of him. Especially given where they respectively are, Sam is simply better, and therefore risking more. Though some have raised their eyebrows at the fact that no NBA teams have signed Collins, it has not became a major controversy because it is plausible that Collins would not receive a roster spot on the merits. By contrast, if Sam is not drafted and there is no obvious reason why other than the most obvious reason, it will rightly be a scandal. Finally—and I say this with a lot of love for professional basketball—there is nothing in American sports like the NFL.
Of course, to the proverbial Martian who sees all this happening, this is more than a little ridiculous. In 2014, it should not be news that somebody is coming out; “Outside the Lines”’s Chris Connelly noted that “Gay Man to Enter Workforce” sounds like an Onion headline. But we are in sportsworld, homophobia’s strongest remaining mainstream fortress. More than that: we are in the SEC, college football’s best and most politically Red State conference; and we will soon be in the NFL, the biggest league in sports.
Sam killed it this past season, leading his team to the conference championship game with a conference-leading 11.5 sacks. And his teammates knew. And they—dozens of college kids!—were respectful and discreet enough that we are only learning about this now, because Sam wanted us to. “There are guys in locker rooms that maturity-wise cannot handle it or deal with the thought of that,” one NFL assistant coach told SI. Whichever NFL franchises believe their locker rooms aren’t ready for Sam might want to consider cutting everyone and starting afresh. They could do worse than by drafting this Missouri Tiger—or any Missouri Tiger.