On Sunday, former Missouri defensive lineman and reigning SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam announced that he is gay, becoming the first openly gay NFL Draft prospect in league history.
If no active player comes out between now and the start of next season, Sam will be the first gay North American athlete in the four major sports to play in a game (Jason Collins was a member of the NBA’s Washington Wizards when he announced he was gay in May 2013, but did not appear in any games after that due to injury).
Sam’s announcement is a monumental landmark in American sports. The barrier that stands between gay athletes and acceptance has slowly been eroding in recent years, with supporters becoming increasingly vocal. Sam’s declaration is just the latest in what has been a landmark year for gay athletes.
Last February, soccer player Robbie Rogers announced he was gay, and a month later joined the Los Angeles Galaxy, becoming the first openly gay professional athlete in North American sports history.
There have been other famous athletes in the past that have come out as gay. Tennis legend Billie Jean King, Olympic diver Greg Louganis and WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes are among the most notable. But for the longest time, the sport of football has been perceived as the most hostile environment for the gay community.
The atmosphere around football locker rooms, both in college and in the NFL, is one of hyper-masculinity and intimidation in which machismo is the status quo among those involved in the game. Players and coaches are expected to be tough, and the prevailing stereotype of gay men, to many, is that they are weaker than their straight counterparts.
This attitude, which is prevalent in football, appears to be fading away. Last month, Conner Mertens, a kicker at Division III Willamette University, announced that he was bisexual, and the response from his teammates and coaches was overwhelmingly positive. Before Sam went public with his announcement this week, he told his team the truth about his sexuality over the summer, and his teammates stood by him.
What’s most impressive about this is that no one who knew about Sam being gay leaked the story to anybody, even though Sam made no such plea to keep his sexuality a secret. This is evidence that, while Sam’s coming out is definitely an important moment for this country, to the people who matter — Sam, his teammates, his family — this announcement was not a big deal. Missouri’s season went on without a hitch, culminating in a Cotton Bowl victory over Oklahoma State.
Moving on to the NFL as an openly gay man, however, will be uncharted waters for Sam. Though former players such as Chris Kluwe and Brandon Ayanbadejo have expressed support of gay players, there have been a number of remarks from current players that show the league’s overall lack of acceptance. During media day for Super Bowl XLVII last year, 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver made anti-gay remarks when asked if there were any gay players on his team.
“I don’t do the gay guys. I don’t do that,” Culliver told Artie Lange on Lange’s radio show. “We ain’t got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up outta here if they do … Come out 10 years later after [retiring].”
Culliver’s comments came in the midst of an assault trial in which Kwame Harris, a former first round draft pick who last played in the league in 2008, was accused of assaulting his then-boyfriend. During his career, Harris did not openly proclaim his homosexuality. He would later partly attribute his disappointing career to dealing with the burden of concealing his sexuality.
It appears that an NFL locker room remains a tough place for a gay player. Just last week, Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma expressed concern over the possibility of having a gay teammate.
“Imagine if he’s the guy next to me, and you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me,” Vilma told NFL Network. “How am I supposed to respond?”
Whichever locker room Sam ends up in next season will be the setting of a very public social experiment. How will Sam be received by those in the league? Many NFL scouts and executives have anonymously stated their belief that his announcement will definitely hurt his draft stock, with most coaches and general managers having concerns that Sam will bring a media circus with him and serve as a distraction.
I don’t expect this to be an issue for long. The NFL might not be the most accepting environment, but in the end it’s a results-based business. If you deliver results, you will gain acceptance. In his college career, Sam has absolutely delivered results, leading the SEC in sacks and tackles for loss last season.
There is also hope that the intimidation factor of the NFL locker room can change. Last season’s incident involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin of the Miami Dolphins serves as a telling sign of how hostile a locker room can be, evidenced by the teammates’ text exchanges, which were recently released publicly.
But the season ended with the Seattle Seahawks, led by former USC coach Pete Carroll, as undisputed champions. Carroll has been revered by his players for his constant positivity, and his locker room has been celebrated for its lack of stress and emphasis on kindness and love. Carroll’s methods are unique to the NFL and were once criticized and even mocked, yet he has now delivered results, sparking debate as to whether this type of approach will spread to the rest of the league.
It’s somewhat sad that, to be taken seriously, it seems as though you must win first in order to establish credibility. Perhaps Sam’s NFL career will be unimpressive and brief. He might never become an All-Pro player or even a starter. But with his courageous announcement on Sunday, Sam has already won.
Nick Selbe is a senior majoring in communication. His column “Inside the 20s” runs Tuesdays. To comment on this story, visit dailytrojan.com or email Nick at nselbe.edu.