There have been gay NFL players forever. Most we just don’t know about.
Because of an uncompromising and judgmental society and a sport that endorses manliness, NFL players who are gay have kept their sexual orientation a secret out of shame, convenience or a variety of other reasons.
But up steps Michael Sam, an outstanding college defender at Missouri who announced Sunday that he is gay during an interview with ESPN’s Outside the Lines.
“I am an openly, proud gay man,” Sam told ESPN’s Chris Connelly.
Assuming Sam is drafted in May, he would become the first openly gay player in NFL history.
Is this a Jackie Robinson moment in professional sports? Maybe, although Sam won’t encounter the same prejudice that Robinson had to endure when he became major league baseball’s first black player with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
If you’ve seen the movie 42, you’re aware of just how distasteful and nasty the reaction to Robinson was.
What Sam has done, though, is no less courageous. I just believe we’ve advanced as a society to the point where his sexual preference won’t becoming the predominant issue of his career. It would be a terrible thing, for instance, if Sam goes undrafted in May. That would indicate a lack of understanding and tolerance on the part of NFL people who so far have said all the right things. At least most of them have.
There are always going to be those who oppose homosexuality. It has been and will continue to be one of society’s most divisive topics.
But as more and more states legalize gay marriage, and more and more mainstream media treat homosexuality as a way of life and not a curse, I want to believe the antagonists are dwindling. I want to believe that Sam will be accepted into the NFL for who he is and as a football player who has a chance to be a good player.
Most of the draft experts I’ve heard have Sam listed as anywhere from a third- to a fifth-round pick. Some question where the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Sam best fits in an NFL defense. Is he big enough to play as defensive end? Does he have enough speed to play linebacker?
One thing most draft experts seem to agree on is that Sam, who led the SEC with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss in 2013, can get to the quarterback. And teams place a very high value on defensive players who can get to the quarterback.
I hope Sam gets a chance to play in the NFL and from the discussion so far it appears he will. I’ve been happy to read many comments from NFL players who are supportive of Sam and others who applaud his decision to publicly announce he is gay.
Sam made an individual decision here. I don’t expect a bunch of gay players following his lead, at least not yet. But somebody, perhaps, homosexuals won’t have to hide.
Sam played the 2013 season at Missouri after telling teammates before the season about his sexual orientation. Those young teammates respected Sam enough to not get on Twitter or through anonymous means leak the news. It says a lot about how Sam was regarded by the guys he played college football with.
I heard Missouri coach Gary Pinkel do a radio interview Monday morning and he spoke of Sam’s character and ability.
By all accounts, this is a fine young man as well as an outstanding football player. I’m hopeful that he’ll get the same respect in the NFL that he received from his Tigers teammates. But the NFL is where people like Richie Incognito lurk. So we’ll see.
Here’s hoping that regardless the reaction, Sam has the fortitude to endure and succeed. He’s a pioneer. He’s the first. Now the ball is in the NFL’s court. Here’s hoping acceptance rules the day.