When University of Missouri All-American defensive lineman Michael Sam came out publicly in interviews over the weekend, he put himself in a position to become the first openly gay player in the National Football League — if, as expected, he’s chosen by a team in the May draft. Professional team sports are among the last arenas of public life to embrace openly gay people, and the NFL is expected to be a particularly tough culture to challenge. Sam is brave to go public in advance of the NFL draft, when his announcement could potentially harm his standing and drop him down a few notches.
The varied reactions to his public revelation say much about how far the country has evolved on this issue, and how much further it has to go. His announcement was cheered by gay rights advocates, his school classmates, his teammates — who have known his orientation since last year — and the governor of Missouri, among others.
At the same time, several NFL executives and coaches, anonymously quoted in a story on SI.com, said the announcement, with all its attendant publicity, could lessen his appeal to teams. Sam, the co-defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, was projected to be a mid-to-late round draft pick before his announcement. Said one NFL scout in the SI.com piece: “Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote ‘break the barrier’”?
In some other fields of work, the answer would be, “Well, sure, why not?” But homophobia is still part of the macho culture that thrives on and off the field in professional football. Gay slurs are still thrown around in conversation, by some accounts.
Last fall, the NFL launched an investigation into reported allegations that Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito was harassing and threatening teammate Jonathan Martin with voice and text messages that included death threats and racial slurs — reportedly as a way to toughen up the less-seasoned Martin.
It’s unacceptable that such an abusive locker room mentality persists, and it is sad that elite athletes might still be uncomfortable in a locker room with a gay man. But there’s some indication that this mind-set is changing. Several NFL players have spoken out in support of same-sex marriage. In August 2012, the San Francisco 49ers became the first NFL team to participate in the “It Gets Better” campaign to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.
And as in other sports in which individuals broke barriers — Jackie Robinson comes to mind — it will take one tough-skinned person to start that adjustment. But it’s an adjustment that must be made, and it’s overdue in professional football. The question now is whether an NFL team will step forward to meet Sam’s challenge.