When Michael Sam came out back in February, he was thrust into a spotlight that he could not have possibly been prepared for. The media descended on Sam like hawks, anticipating that if drafted, Sam could become the first openly gay player to compete in a regular season NFL game. We all know what came next. He was drafted by the Rams. He was cut. He was signed to the Cowboys’ practice squad. And Tuesday, we learned the latest setback, as Sam was cut again.
Now let’s tell that story a different way. A young man, who was relatively unknown to the casual football fan, garnered unprecedented media attention for announcing he was gay, something the overwhelming majority of our country is completely fine with. He never played in an NFL regular season game, and yet we are still talking about him.
Many critics of the media coverage on Sam would tell his story the second way. In a sense, they would ask – and have asked – Why do we care? So he’s gay, so what? I only care if he can play football. It doesn’t matter to me what you do in the bedroom as long as you can make a tackle. Since when is someone’s sex life news?
There are a lot of reasons why Sam’s self-outing matters, and they have been said before. He is a pioneer. He is standing up to ignorant people who don’t think a gay man can be a macho, tough football player. He is risking his personal success and possibly his career to come out prior to being drafted. He is changing the tides.
But here’s why it really matters for Michael Sam to come out, and for all LGBT people in the public eye, who can do so safely, to come out. It’s why we still have National Coming Out Day and It Gets Better. It shows the world that coming out of the closet feels good, plain and simple.
Sam isn’t just a gay man. As we have seen, he is a very talented football player who may still play in an NFL regular season game. But he is also a 24-year-old public figure, who wants to post pictures of his boyfriend on Instagram, or speak openly about his gay friends and his involvement in the community. Anyone who has come out of the closet in any capacity can attest to how freeing that little act of honesty can be.
There is a reason it is called the LGBT community. More than just finding a partner (brace yourselves, critics, being gay is more than about sex), gay people want to have gay friends to relate to, and gay role models to look up to. When celebrities out themselves, it creates a diverse pool of role models that will inevitably lead to a diverse group of closeted LGBT people looking up to them. As the ignorance about what an LGBT person looks like, acts like, or does for a living dwindles, so will the fear of coming out.
Right now Michael Sam is the best chance there is at having an openly gay man play a regular season game in the NFL. The hope is that he will not be the last, but in order for that to happen, there needs to be a first. The potential for Michael Sam or any gay man to play in the NFL is important because it creates a fundamental shift in how gay athletes are perceived. For everyone who has ever been afraid to come out, or maybe for that young, gay football player who never had someone to look up to, it’s simply impossible not to be a fan of Michael Sam – the happy, out, and proud gay man.
ANNIE HOLLENBECK began her career in sports journalism at ESPN, not long after graduating from the University of Notre Dame. She is an avid runner, a New York sports apologist, and a self-proclaimed cinephile. Annie currently resides in Los Angeles, works as the production manager at Outfest, and covers sports for Advocate.com.