In the last 24 hours, the name Michael Sam has been trending. Not because of stats, or because of a criminal act, but because he wants to be himself; the first openly gay athlete to be drafted to the NFL. We admire his courage, his ability to speak out where others haven’t in the past and are openly supportive of his decision. However, society is not a book you can read. Instances like this do not come with instructions. He will need all of the courage he can muster in order to fend off the discrimination that may follow. Even some of the Missouri coaches have made mention that they had to change how they spoke to the players and how to conduct themselves. That will remain true at the NFL level. What Michael Sam has done for the American culture is give a face to a sociological situation some folks are still not ready to accept. Should gay athletes be accepted for who they are?
February is known as Black history month. It’s a time to look back at the circumstances that impacted millions of African Americans and our culture as a whole. While people such as Dr. Martin Luther King gave their lives in order to fight for equality, Michael Sam is also fighting for equality. To be looked upon as an equal within a professional sports locker room. We know that there have been other gay athletes who have played, but they didn’t have the opportunity to tell the world. The world wasn’t ready. So what makes the world ready now? To quote Michael Sam: “Because I am not afraid of who I am.” Having the appropriate mind set is key here. No one, no matter how tough of a football player, can survive being discriminated against without feeling somewhat overwhelmed. This is uncharted territory. The culture of the sport is much like the culture of the United States during the 50’s and 60’s. There are some of us who would welcome change, while there are many people who don’t consider change necessary. Ever heard the saying “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”? Well there are many NFL athletes, executives, and personnel that may agree with that. For those folks, their inability to see past Sam’s sexuality will impede the progress of not only themselves, but the sports world, as well as society.
We, the citizens of the United States of America, have an opportunity ahead of us. We can begin a new era in not only sports, but with the concept of coexistence. It took more than 100 years for African Americans to be considered equals, and parts of this country are still prejudicial against them. So how will Michael Sam and his message be acknowledged? Certain cities will be more accepting than others to the idea of drafting the first openly gay athlete in NFL history, but the consequences of drafting him may over shadow the player and his production early in his career. So how as a GM can you logically take a chance on the first openly gay man in men’s professional sports? What will it do in your locker room? Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel spoke to one NFL executive who was quoted as saying “I just know with this going on this is going to drop him down.” That will be Sam’s biggest hurdle going forward, the distraction that will be his sexuality. The unfortunate effect of his decision will be the media circus that will follow him throughout his first season. It will not only affect Sam, but his entire team as his teammates will undoubtedly be asked thousands of questions and some of them will be tough to answer correctly. The culture of the team much like at Missouri will have to adapt. The teams he plays against will be asked questions. It will be the focus of every interview until Sam can prove himself as an athlete, gay or not.
Is the NFL ready? Are we as a sports fans ready? Can we look at Michael Sam as an athlete like everyone else in the NFL? Will he go to a team that can handle the fire storm or media coverage? Heck will he be drafted at all or will his decision affect the decisions of all the 32 NFL teams to draft him? With so many questions it will take as much courage for a GM to draft Michael Sam as it did for him to come out. I commend him. This is a sign of progress. This is much like the Little Rock nine. Those children were the first African American students to be integrated into a public white only school. They helped change the culture of the United States. It led to a powerful movement of human rights for all of the citizens of this country regardless of color. To quote Dr. Martin Luther King “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Those words hold true today for Michael Sam as well as the rest of us. We as a society need to play our part to welcome the first potential openly gay NFL athlete not with that stigma, but as an equal. It’s time! It’s time to see the man for who he is. This is the chance for all of us to redeem ourselves for the segregation and discrimination that has overtaken the culture of homosexuality. Because Michael Sam is more than just a football player, he’s a man, an athlete and an inspiration. We should all welcome the change that is coming.