Draft prospect from Missouri will test the sports world’s readiness to join the rest of us in the 21st Century.
By Andy Cohen
By now you’ve probably heard that former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out to the national press yesterday as gay. Sam is an NFL prospect—projected by some to be picked as high as the third round—hoping to earn a paycheck as a professional football player next Fall, and should he make an NFL roster, he will become the first openly gay player in any of the major pro sports in the United States (sorry, the MLS doesn’t count quite yet).
Sam’s draft stock will be the topic of conversation from now until the NFL season begins next September. Attitudes are changing about the LGBT community; acceptance of LGBT people is now almost a given, something unthinkable 10 years ago. Poll after poll show that by a large majority Americans now accept the rights of gays to marry, with 17 states having legalized gay marriage, the federal government having disavowed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and Attorney General Eric Holder having recently announced that the DOJ will fully recognize same sex couples, ensuring them the same rights as heterosexual couples.
Bottom line: The LGBT community is viewed less and less as some sort of deviant strain of humanity that needs to be shunned or converted and more and more as our friends, neighbors, co-workers….just normal people who have a different sexual preference than the rest of us. And no, being gay is not contagious.
But those attitudes have not broken through the intolerant world of professional sports quite yet. Particularly men’s professional sports. NBA player Jason Collins came out as gay last year, and while the reaction to his coming out has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive, he’s still looking for a job. The argument can be made that Collins was a marginal role/bench player and thus his services weren’t in high demand to begin with, but intellectually we all know it’s probably more than that.
And then there’s this: An SI story giving the reaction of current NFL execs, anonymously of course. No one wants to actually go on record opposing an openly gay player. Going by their sentiments, it seems that Sam will be lucky to be drafted at all.
And that may turn out to be the case, but that’s not all bad news for Michael Sam. The team that drafts him will be well aware of what they’re getting, and will be ready and willing to deal with the circus that’ll follow him to town.
Or, if he’s a free agent, he’ll get to pick and choose what team he wants to go to; what organization feels like the best situation for him. Sure it won’t be the ideal situation for his bank account, but it could turn out best in the long run.
Take the case of Antonio Gates, the Chargers’ future Hall of Fame tight end.
WARNING! SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION PORTION OF STORY: In the fall of 2002 I was tasked with evaluating a college basketball player’s prospects for the NFL. It turns out that Antonio Gates had originally gone to Michigan St. on a football scholarship, intending to play football for Nick Saban and basketball for Tom Izzo. He eventually ended up at Kent St. to play basketball, having only spent one semester as a redshirt freshman in East Lansing before transferring out, landing at Kent St a couple of years later.
I did my due diligence and determined that yes, he had a chance at becoming a decent tight end. I passed my findings on to our Director of Player Personnel, Buddy Nix, and then to our Tight Ends Coach Tim Brewster. We decided to pursue him, but when I suggested that we use a compensatory pick at the bottom of the seventh round on him, I was laughed out of the room.
We signed Gates as a free agent after the 2003 Draft. But there were still scouts within our organization that were furious about it. Watching him go through drills on the first day of rookie camp the week after the draft, two of our scouts decided that the experiment was over, Gates’ presence was a humiliation and an insult to the game, and we needed to cut him loose and end this charade immediately. He hadn’t played football in five years. The guy hadn’t earned the privilege of playing NFL football.
There were a lot of other people around The League that felt the same way. A college basketball player didn’t belong in the NFL, but by his second year—first as a full time starter—he was an All-Pro.
Gates clearly had his doubters, but given the opportunity he proved them all dead wrong. His arrival, though, didn’t come with the attention and notoriety that Sam’s arrival will. The circus will follow him to whatever town he’s drafted to.
Then again, Manti Te’o brought the circus to San Diego with him, too. There were all kinds of questions about Te’o, including some about his sexuality. Te’o and the Chargers seemed to survive that storm quite nicely, thankyouverymuch.
Michael Sam is going to be under the microscope from now until the media gets tired of picking over every aspect of his life sometime in the first half of the next NFL season. Chances are that his draft stock will plummet, and there will be NFL team executives and owners who will shy away from selecting him largely because of his sexual orientation, whether it’s due to their own prejudices regarding homosexuality or their fears—founded or not—of the disruption his presence might cause in the locker room.
It’s that locker room dynamic that currently serves as the biggest barrier for Sam. While Gates faced some resistance in his rookie year, it was nothing like what Sam is likely to encounter, at least at first.
But someone will step up and make him a part of their roster. Someone will push aside the traditional fears and attitudes towards homosexuality and actually join the rest of us in the 21st century. He may end up taking a de-facto pay cut for the first couple of years of his pro career because of his diminished draft status, but he’ll be an NFL player.
Sam played his entire college career at Missouri with many of his teammates knowing his secret. Last summer, just prior to the beginning of fall camp, he came out to the entire team and coaching staff. The reaction: Finally he’s out! In a locker room in the SEC, no one seemed to care that one of their teammates was gay. He was a first team All-American last year, and voted SEC co-Defensive Player of the Year. The guy can play.
Ultimately it will be Sam’s play on the field that will determine his worth to a franchise. Antonio Gates played for a pittance (relatively speaking) given his level of production in his first two years, and was very well rewarded for it in his second NFL contract . Make a statement on the field and Sam will get paid just like Gates did regardless of where (or if) he’s drafted.
The circus is coming to town somewhere in the NFL this fall. Eventually, though, it’ll leave. Once it does, no one will think twice about the gay guy in the NFL locker room, and we’ll all be wondering why we made such a big deal out of it in the first place.