In less than two days, NFL prospect Michael Sam's coming out as gay has shifted from a personal story of courage and conviction to a cautionary tale about the risky move made by a player who could very well not be drafted at all come May. Before this weekend, the prognosticati had the Missouri graduate, an All-American defensive lineman who was named the Southeastern Conference's 2013 Defensive Player of the Year, being drafted between third and seventh rounds. After the New York Times broke the story, fellow players tweeted their support and even FLOTUS chimed in about Sam's “courage.” Finally, here was a player whose talent and performance the NFL could not deny. Next season we would all be looking back at this groundbreaking moment that changed sports history.
Not so fast.
Sports Illustrated interviewed a few NFL executives, all anonymously, about Sam's decision. The consensus was that his draft stock had dropped. "I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," a personnel assistant told the magazine. "In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game." And an assistant coach said, "If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it? It's going to be a big distraction." The article went up Sunday night, and by Monday morning Sam had plummeted 70 points in the CBS NFL draft board. (It has since regained 50 points. Perhaps the hysteria is already dying down?)
If you need more proof of how a media narrative can change the reality on the ground, look no further. It makes almost no difference whether or not the players themselves would actually feel uncomfortable with Sam. The executives, speaking on the players' behalf, claim they will be uncomfortable, and the media, by reporting these concerns, is giving the impression that the players really are concerned, which in turn creates even more doubts about Sam's prospects, which ends up hurting his chances on the predictive draft boards, and quite possibly his chances of getting drafted at all.
It's hard to underscore just how difficult Sam's decision to come out really was. It wasn't just a question of being the first, but also a question of timing. Had he waited until after the draft, we would have seen what draft position his skill alone merited. Almost certainly, it would have been an earlier round than it will be after all this hoopla. Depending on how many rounds he potentially falls, his decision may have cost him millions of dollars. This assumes Sam will be drafted at all. I'm sure it occurred to him that he might not be, but it didn't stop him. Coming out with integrity—now, and on his own terms—meant more to him. “I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” Sam told the Times. “I just want to own my truth.” Sam told the Times that he sensed rumors were circulating, which led him to act now rather than after the draft. Once again, the narrative drives the reality. The media wants it both ways: First they bring up rumors about Sam's sexuality and once he does come out, they push the narrative that the NFL isn't ready for it.
The interesting thing about the NFL executives' comments is how much value these supposedly savvy GMs place on maintaining locker room culture—more value than they seem to be placing on improving their team. Should Sam get picked in a much later round than his performance would indicate, then this could be interpreted as GMs making the un-market-based decision to bypass a stronger performer in order to avoid ruffling a few feathers. Arguing that Sam's orientation will prove too distracting in a league where so many players are embroiled in actual, ugly scandals is flimsy at best. The truth may be that performance is not always the decisive factor for these teams, especially when a potential pick isn't “one of the boys.”
Many women have made similar arguments about gender-based discrimination and unequal pay in the workforce: that often they too are passed over for promotions, or paid less than their male counterparts, not because of their job performance but rather because of a male-dominated corporate culture which seems eager to perpetuate certain myths about masculinity and power. This partly explains why we don't see nearly as many female CEOs as we should. In a male-dominated culture, where power is often closely associated with traditional ideas of masculinity, women don't advance as easily. The same can be said for gay men in these environments—contrary to a long-standing myth that they earn more, on average, than straight men.
Many news stories have indulged this fantasy about well-to-do gay men and their considerable purchasing power, a misconception popular since the 1990s when gay men were swooping into desolate neighborhoods in urban centers such as Miami and New York and revitalizing them. The statistics, however, do not bear this out. In A 2007 survey, the Williams Institute found that gay men earned 10-32 percent less than their similarly qualified heterosexual counterparts. Gary Gates, a scholar with the Institute, also analyzed the 2010 Census Bureau data and noted that while the gap has narrowed, it still remained. And in 2010, Joe Clark, conducting a six-month review of "every article on lesbian and gay economics" published since the early 1990s, found that gay men earn less than straight men, often “much” less, because they work less hours, in lower-wage, often female-dominated jobs.
Perhaps it's premature to be arguing for fair pay for gay NFL players when we aren't even sure Michael Sam is going to be drafted at all. We might have to wait for a true college superstar to come out of the closet—or for the gay equivalent of Magic Johnson's HIV announcement—before the NFL powers-that-be are forced to confront the issue of gay players in their league. A memo to these executives and anyone else who's clinging to a culture of heterosexual male power: This person is probably already out there. He just hasn't come out of the closet yet.