On Feb. 9, Missouri defensive end and NFL prospect Michael Sam came out as gay in an interview with ESPN. Standing at 6 feet 2 inches tall and 255 pounds, Sam is poised to become the first openly gay player to play in the NFL. Amidst all the controversy over the Olympics and Russia’s anti-gay policies, this came as a bombshell.
It was, to say the least, unexpected. For some time now there has been an expectation that an openly gay athlete would emerge in one of the big four of North American professional team sports (NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA), but the NFL was all but a shoe-in for the distinction of being the last league anyone expected to have an openly gay athlete.
In an interview with the NFL network on the day of the Super Bowl, Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma seemed to perpetuate the image that the NFL would not be wholly accepting of a gay player: “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, how am I supposed to respond?”
Vilma’s fear proved not to be an isolated opinion as an Anonymous NFL insider reported to Sports Illustrated that Sam’s announcement likely lowered his draft stock, implying that he could be a distraction in the locker room and with the media. Sam reportedly was an early 3rd to 5th round pick before he came out, and now experts are suggesting that he is closer to a 4th or 5th round pick.
Former NFL Head Coach Herm Edwards furthered this statement by saying that Sam is, “bringing baggage into your locker room” and that teams have to ask themselves, “Can we handle this guy?’ Can we handle the media that’s gonna come along with this situation?”
Edwards’ statements led free agent receiver Donte’ Stallworth to post on Twitter, “If the NFL can’t ‘handle the media coverage’ of drafting Sam, then your team is already a loser on the field.” Likewise, the New York Giants, Cleveland Browns, New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles, and Green Bay Packers all openly stated that they would have no issue drafting Sam.
The idea that his sexuality will be a distraction in the locker room is something Sam is going to have to deal with whether it’s right or wrong. He’s entering his rookie season with a target on his back in an environment that has had problems in the past with hazing. The satirical news source, The Onion, picked up on this, publishing an article with the headline, “Michael Sam Hoping Sexuality Won’t Be Issue In Locker Room Full Of Testosterone-Fueled Former High School Bullies.”
Sam has likely opened himself up to harassment, but you don’t get to the NFL if you’re soft. Sam has already endured plenty of adversity. In an interview with ESPN he said, “I endured so much in my past: seeing my older brother killed from a gunshot wound, not knowing that my oldest sister died when she was a baby and I never got the chance to meet her. My second oldest brother went missing in 1998, and me and my little sister were the last ones to see him … My other two brothers have been in and out of jail since 8th grade, currently both in jail.”
Sam privately came out to his college team, University of Missouri, his senior year and went on to pick up the team’s MVP award along with the honor of being the SEC co-Defensive player of the year. Missouri itself ended a 12-2 season as the Number 5 team in the nation. Sam certainly wasn’t a distraction for his teammates there.
The 2014 NFL draft will be held the second week of May. Michael Sam is ready to play in the NFL. Is the NFL, its players, and its fans ready to accept Michael Sam?