Column: Michael Sam proud in his own skin
The day when a young man publicly expressed himself with integrity and pride is a day that will go down in history.
On Sunday, Michael Sam, who played for Missouri, told the world he was gay.
Now, it’s almost Valentine’s Day and Sam is receiving a lot of love from teammates.
The former Missouri defender and the Associated Press’ SEC Defensive Player of the Year said it, owned it and is now drafting into a league with a blatantly macho culture, possibly becoming the first openly gay NFL player.
“I am an openly proud gay man,” Sam, 24, said in reports posted Sunday by ESPN.
Already, Sam’s stock in the NFL Draft has begun to drop. Sam was ranked as the No. 110 overall prospect, but after his statement, he had an initial drop to 160.
This controversial statement created expected amounts of bigotry from people everywhere. These people seem to believe that Sam’s sexuality is a distraction, and that a gay man on the team would make the locker room uncomfortable. But, in an ESPN interview, Sam reveals that his teammates knew of his sexuality throughout the 2013 season.
Sam and the Tigers had a sensational season as Missouri won the Cotton Bowl and finished 12-2. Teammates even voted Sam as Missouri’s most valuable player. Sam, an All-American, had 11.5 sacks, 19 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles — all alongside teammates who already knew his secret.
The respect shown by Sam’s teammates, coaches and the NFL to this point has been commendable.
In a statement Sunday night, the league said, “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage.
Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”
America seems to be opening its eyes, as 17 states have legalized gay marriage, but the sports industry has seen relatively no change. This is the NFL’s chance to be an agent of societal progress.
The NFL is America’s biggest sport, and the largest major league sports organization in America. During the NFL season there are 1,600 players on the roster at any time. Yet, there has never been a publicly gay player.
Sam was projected to be chosen as high as the third round of the NFL draft in May, but this declaration could have a potential detriment for his professional career — not just because of his homosexuality, but because with that announcement Sam is inviting the media and the public to follow his journey into the NFL.
As the media glare intensifies, Sam will be viewed as more and more of a distraction. And normally teams work to avoid distraction.
Sam’s homosexuality isn’t the point, but by coming out he turned a very bright spotlight on himself, and the reality is that teams would rather the bright lights shine on their superstars. This could cause him to slip into the late rounds or perhaps even entirely out of the draft.
These next few months, the sports industry will enter uncharted territory. If Sam is drafted, he’ll likely be the first openly gay player in league history. If he isn’t, each and every individual in the NFL front offices will be forced to explain why not.
But for now, Sam will be celebrating his first Valentine’s Day as an openly gay man.
—Follow Zoe Wolkowitz @zowolko