Op-ed: Michael Sam, Our Great Gay Hope

The world is in a tizzy now that Michael Sam has come out.

BY Michelle Garcia

February 13 2014 9:00 AM ET

Perhaps you've heard the NFL may have a gay player this season. Michael Sam, a star player at the University of Missouri, decided to enter the 2014 draft as an openly gay man. From what we know this is truly a first, and hopefully, it won't be the last.

Now, by all accounts, Sam was already looking like a great draft pick. He was named defensive player of the year in what is arguably the best conference in Division I college football. He was named to the All-American team. He led Mizzou to victory at the Cotton Bowl. And his skills have only improved over his four years playing college ball. Not only that, he is well-liked by his teammates, to whom he came out in August. Did everyone on the team take him to gay bars or go to St. Louis Gay Pride with him over the summer? No, but some did, and for the most part, his teammates were respectful of his announcement.

Interestingly, after a couple of years of covering sports for The Advocate, I came to learn that this was the way most people figured we'd have an out athlete in one of the professional male sports: An excellent out college player would rise through the ranks and be eventually drafted into the league. And, as Orin Starn, a cultural anthropology professor from Duke University, put it, this league is viewed as "the most macho and heterosexual of all the major American sports with its gladiator ethos."

As Starn alludes to, the conventional wisdom has been that a veteran player entrenched in the league might be too averse to coming out — he would have too much to lose. And while they're not gay players, the fact that prominent LGBT allies Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings and Brendon Ayanbadejo of the Baltimore Ravens (you know, the guy with the Super Bowl ring) are both not playing this year might lend to the notion that coaches and owners aren't so OK with gay players.

For the most part, however, it seems like the league itself — as in, the corporate people who work in the same office building as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell — have been trying very hard shake their image of being a horribly homophobic place for players and fans. Right now the NFL is involved in a program called Characters Unite, in which a bunch of football players coach kids out of the darkness of being bullied. Wade Davis, a former football player who's now the head of the You Can Play project, says the NFL has been trying to show that it's a more welcoming place through multiple collaborations with organizations like GLAAD, Athlete Ally, and Wade's own group.

And dozens of football players — potential teammates, by the way — expressed their support for Sam, which is tremendous. Giants co-owner Steve Tisch, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy, and a few other notable authority figures in the league also expressed support.

And yet, it doesn't feel real. Not yet.

Sam hasn't been drafted yet. He will be. I'll bet money on that. But there seems to be a new closet emerging: NFL figures who just don't get it. The ones who suddenly think that because Sam is gay, he's of lesser value. If you read some of the sports media's coverage around Sam, specifically a certain Sports Illustrated article, you'll see a handful of cowardly, oops, I mean anonymous executives who say they think Sam will no longer be draftable. Suddenly he's "too small" to play defense in the NFL. And some say that he'll be a distraction thanks to all of that media attention — you know, more of a distraction than those guys on the team who have been implicated in domestic violence or sexual abuse cases.

Still, the most frequent "worries" that I've seen over and over again: The other players won't be able to call each other the f word anymore, and they're going to feel "weird" sharing a locker room with him.  

Hmm. Really? I guess they should have been uncomfortable the moment they ever started playing organized football, if they're so worried that someone could *gasp* look at them in a locker room. You know, because that never happens unless gay people are at large, #nohomo.

Everyone, it's math time. A football team typically has 53 or more dudes on it at any given time. Liberal conventional wisdom says that 10 percent or even 25 percent of humans are LGBT in some way. More conservative estimates say that the figure is more like 3 percent. Among all of the pee-wee, junior high, high school, and college teams that these players have been on, any football player has changed in front of, showered with, or BS'd in a locker room with upwards of 15 gay people (or, more conservatively, somewhere between one and five). But now that they would know that one of their teammates is gay, they now suddenly feel uncomfortable? Give me a break.

Interestingly this is always the question, when we get down to it. There's no doubt that gay players can play — they've been playing all along. And no one really wants to know whether a gay athlete will feel comfortable playing with straight men. The question is, Will gigantic straight men suddenly, God forbid, feel objectified for the first time in their lives?

Doesn't feel too great, does it, dudes?

With Sam's tremendous announcement, the speculation, and questions will undoubtedly continue. Until he finally is drafted, we'll wonder whether Sam's chances of being an early pick will be shattered because of his announcement. A bunch of scouts seem to think so — The NFL Scout Draft on CBS says Sam's draft stock has been fluctuating all over the place, since. Initially, his stock dropped nearly 100 points in the rankings, but he's gone back up about 50 spots. Apparently, this is nothing to worry about, since these rankings fluctuate (and you may be one of those people, like me, who believe the stock market — the real one and the NFL stock market — is mostly volatile hooey, anyway).

Until then, I'm pinning my hopes on Mike Sam as being the Jackie Robinson of LGBT people (no pressure, bro). Because that's what this is all about: breaking barriers and paving the way for more people to join until it doesn't matter who you love, or the color of your skin. The only thing that will matter will be whether you can play.

And in this grand experiment, we won't know who will draft Sam, or how early in the draft he'll get picked up, or whether he'll be a distraction. But whichever team takes him will certainly see an uptick of new fans — I'll estimate an increase of somewhere between 3 and 10 percent or even 25 percent.

MICHELLE GARCIA is the managing editor of The Advocate and she is in love with covering sports this week. Follow her on Twitter @MzMichGarcia.

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