Two weeks ago, Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam announced that he is gay, and thus will become the first openly gay player to enter the NFL draft. Sam, voted co-Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, recorded 19 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks in his senior year, breaking the Missouri record in the process. Not seen as a game-breaker in the upcoming draft, he is projected to go somewhere between the third and fifth round.
It slightly surprises me, however, how so much of Sam’s identity has been tied not to his ability as a player but rather to his sexual orientation. Of course, he is breaking ground as a gay man by entering the NFL, a league that has suffered various reports of homophobia from players and coaches alike. He is also one of only two openly gay players among the four major American sports leagues (the other being Jason Collins of the NBA, who recently signed with the Brooklyn Nets).
Sam’s own desire to escape the media attention is evident. In his press conference at the NFL Combine, he stated, “I wish [the media] could see me as Michael Sam, the football player, instead of Michael Sam, the gay football player.” Here lies the crux of the problem. Insofar as we, fans and media, laud Sam for his courage, we also prevent his integration into the NFL community. To some, he is a beacon of hope and the picture of courage; to others, a potential distraction in the locker room and a walking media circus. Apparently, he is anything but a football player.
Much has been asked about whether there is an NFL locker room that could be totally accepting of Sam for who he is, and that is certainly a fair question. However, I believe that the fans and media can also play a big role in facilitating his transition to the pros, in that we should not sensationalize it. If one’s sexuality has no correlation to athletic prowess, then Sam’s draft status does not need to be preceded by the fact that he is gay.
In no way am I trying to say that his announcement was not incredibly courageous, and I make no claims to understand the trials and tribulations he may face once he enters the NFL. But I do reject the idea that a team’s refusal to draft or sign him comes down solely to his sexuality. Irene Monroe of The Huffington Post claimed that should Sam fail to find a team come September, that the NFL is sending a message, “No time is right for a player to be out in [American football].”
Framing the discussion as such, in my own view, is disrespectful to Sam. As an NFL prospect, he deserves to have his skills analyzed and critiqued by the press in the same way any other pro should. While one can postulate how being gay may factor into whether or not he receives a contract, it makes the most sense to speak from what we can observe: how strong and fast he is, how well he can read an offensive line, etc. Why give his signing (or potential lack thereof) any different treatment because of his sexuality?
A similar issue surrounded Jason Collins’ lack of a contract after he first came out back in the spring of 2013. As an old, immobile center with paltry stats, he was not incredibly likely to get a contract from any playoff team. After his coming out, however, many attributed his unemployment to his being gay instead of considering what stage he was in his career and whether or not he could really be beneficial to a team.
It is clear that Sam will be tested if or when he enters the NFL. No one would say that the NFL higher-ups have done their utmost to cultivate a welcoming environment around the league. Indeed, it remains the lone major American professional sports league to have not fined or reprimanded a player for using homophobic slurs. A struggle for tolerance in a league defined by machismo will be a long and hard one.
Be as it may, I firmly believe that it is unfair to Sam, as it would be for any openly gay player in professional sports, to judge him by anything less than the quality of his play and to talk about him as a gay man first and athlete second. Full acceptance of Sam, or any gay player, in pro sports means ultimately treating him as one would treat his peers: examining first and foremost his performance on the field.