[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he news was huge and justly celebrated. Michael Sam, the All-American defensive end from Missouri, chose to announce to the world — and, maybe even more significantly, to the National Football League — that he is gay.
It wasn’t the news of the revelation so much — you don’t need to be a stat-head to realize there have always been gay football players — as it was the fact of it.
There are at least two points to be made:
One, if Sam plays next year in the National Football League, he would be the first openly gay athlete in any of the four major American professional sports. (The fact that it’s an if tells you everything.)
Two, the prospect scares the hell out of the people who run NFL teams.
[pullquote]Once it becomes clear that the bigot is the one who isn’t welcome, everything changes.[/pullquote]
Only the first is surprising. We live, after all, at a time when gay marriage is legal in 16 states and when the U.S. military welcomes openly gay personnel, even in their foxholes. So, come on. It’s 2014. The world has changed, and it figures that the the sports world has to change, too. There has to be a modern-day Branch Rickey somewhere in the NFL.
But the second part — that this unnerves the NFL — is entirely expected. On the same day that Sam did the brave and bold thing, Sports Illustrated offered anonymity to a group of NFL general managers and scouts, who all agreed that Sam’s presence in the locker room would be a “distraction,” an all-purpose word that is second only to “adversity” as a sports-world hazard.
Actually, only one person said distraction. Another said that the players would have trouble accepting Sam because “some locker rooms are still stuck in the ’50s.” Another said that now that Sam had told the truth — a truth that NFL scouts were already whispering among themselves, calling it a “character” issue — he would clearly slip in the draft and might not even be drafted at all.
And that last executive was right. Sort of. On Sunday, as noted in the Washington Post, Sam was ranked as the 90th best prospect in the upcoming May NFL draft by one scouting service. On Monday, he was ranked 160th. Later in the day, Sam was 110th.
You can see the problem, and the confusion.
The question is whether the scouts and GMs, all from another generation, are right. My guess is that they’re the ones with the problem. In under-40 America, gay rights are hardly an issue. The shower in the gym is really not an issue. Maybe the NFL is different. Scouts have been asking college players if they have a girlfriend (wink, wink). Before Sam, there were players saying that they didn’t want a gay teammate. A Minnesota Vikings assistant coach was accused of being a homophobe. But here’s a change: The team actually launched an investigation.
And if anti-gay slurs remain common in the locker room — and I’m sure they do — remember that these athletes are people who live in the real world. And the real world is a different place.
If John Elway drafted Sam, what do you think would happen in the Mile High stands? Let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be sitting anywhere near the guy shouting out the homophobic slurs. And as for the locker room, NFL union president (and former Bronco) Domonique Foxworth told ESPN that Sam’s teammates would rally around him, because, when you speak of locker room culture, that’s what teammates do.
But here’s one NFL executive talking to Sports Illustrated: “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. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”
And yet, Sam had told his Missouri teammates before the season that he was gay. Missouri went on to a 12-2 record and a victory at the Cotton Bowl. Sam was voted the league’s best defensive player. His teammates voted him the team’s most valuable player. More to the point, his teammates kept his secret their secret.
Sam told the New York Times: “Once I became official to my teammates, I knew who I was. I knew that I was gay. And I knew that I was Michael Sam, who’s a Mizzou football player who happens to be gay. I was so proud of myself and I just didn’t care who knew. If someone on the street would have asked me, ‘Hey, Mike, I heard you were gay. Is that true?’ I would have said yes.”
He was proud of himself. He knew who he was after years of struggling to figure out who that might be. It sounds like a hell of a success story to me.
Where was the chemical imbalance at Missouri?
Who has the character issue?
In 1947, when Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball, there were real problems in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ clubhouse. A group of players wrote a letter to owner Branch Rickey objecting to playing (and probably showering) with Robinson. What did Rickey do? He blasted the players. And any player who still didn’t want to play with Robinson at the end of the season was traded away.
It’s that simple really. Once it becomes clear that the bigot is the one who isn’t welcome, everything changes. It could even happen in the NFL.