University of Missouri senior defensive end Michael Sam on Sunday became one of the few active male athletes on the major U.S. sports scene to announce that he’s gay and is poised to become the NFL’s first openly gay player.
His declaration to two national media outlets Sunday night was a bold contradiction of stereotypes and possibly stakes new ground in one of the prominent civil rights issues of our time.
A unanimous All-American, the 2013 defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, the nation’s roughest and best, is a gay man, and it’s sure hard to reconcile that with the enduring and mean-spirited myth of sissification.
His decision at last to do so, and how to do it, came in the last few weeks as Sam almost simultaneously told his story to ESPN and The New York Times on Sunday.
Sam’s announcement surely was no surprise for Mizzou football teammates or coaches, to whom he had come out, and others around campus.
But his right to privacy was honored by multiple media outlets, including The Star, as a simple matter of his choice to publicly discuss it or not.
“Once I became official to my teammates, I knew who I was,” Sam told The Times. “I knew that I was gay. And I knew that I was Michael Sam, who’s a Mizzou football player who happens to be gay. I was so proud of myself, and I just didn’t care who knew. If someone on the street would have asked me, ‘Hey, Mike, I heard you were gay; is that true?’ I would have said yes.”
Sam’s decision to go public makes him potentially a pioneering face and force in the gathering movement for equality at a time when acceptance of gay rights is emerging legally and socially but intolerance still rages.
Even if his impetus to do so may have been less about taking a courageous step for gays than it might have been as a necessary pre-emptive maneuver regarding his NFL prospects, the risk and prospective impact and fallout are the same.
As a projected third- or fourth-round NFL pick (though one some consider an in-between size for a pro defensive end at 6 feet 2 and 255 pounds), Sam figures to be in a visible position going forward.
While he probably will be targeted by some groups, Sam’s stature also might stand as a further example and hope for those who are bullied for being different or suffer in silence rather than risk the consequences of bigotry.
Just what it might mean in the most practical sense — his budding NFL career — is an unknown, as one AFC executive, speaking in generalities, told The Star.
“You’ve got 32 different entities, 32 different teams,” he said. “Everybody drafts players differently. Now, with that being said, we’re now in a new era of football where stuff like this is becoming part of the fabric of society.
“The bottom line is, can the guy still play? I think history has shown that if you can play and contribute, depending on the locker room, it will be accepted.”
He added, “We’re at a crossroads with regards to these types of players.”
Although he’s not yet formally in the NFL pool, Sam’s proclamation harkens to perhaps the most similar previous case among male athletes in the so-called big four sports (MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL).
And it triggers anew broader questions about the pace of routine acceptance of gay people.
When Jason Collins came out as his NBA career was ebbing last year, he received wide league and public support, including from former tennis star Martina Navratilova.
Her words, decades after her own revelation that she is a lesbian, were a reminder of the glacial pace of change.
“I can’t believe it’s 32 years after I came out, but better late than never,” she told the “Today” show, adding: “I think Jason coming out this way is going to push that forward a little bit, and most of all, he is going to save lives, there is no doubt in my mind. There is some kid out there who is not going to commit suicide because Jason is out.”
Collins’ career stalled after his announcement. He has not been signed to a contract since, and it’s unclear to what degree that’s because he was in decline at 35 and to what degree it’s because of possible concerns about his place in a locker room.
More recently in the public eye, President Barack Obama named another gay former tennis star, Billie Jean King, among the athletes to lead the U.S. Olympic delegation in Sochi — where Russia’s gay “propaganda” law and incidents of hostility toward gay people have drawn international concern.
“A lot of countries, you’d be in jail if you’re gay; in some countries we would be executed, so it’s still very serious,” King, who missed the Opening Ceremony because of the death of her mother, told CBS, adding: “We just happen to be gay. It’s interesting why people think that’s so major.
“We need to really shift where it’s a non-issue. When it’s a non-issue, it will mean we’ve arrived. It won’t happen in my lifetime, but it definitely is a civil rights issue of the 21st century.”
That plea of live and let live, of course, certainly remains an issue now.
And that will soon be seen through the prism of Sam stepping into unprecedented and complicated territory.
While he’s obviously not the first gay man about to get a chance in the NFL, he’s certainly the first whose orientation has been publicly stated beforehand.
That means that no matter how self-assured, no matter what ways he was supported or ostracized in his hometown of Hitchcock, Texas, or at MU, there’s likely to be a new frontier of resistance in the form of the macho NFL locker room and perhaps in the eyes of fretful executives.
“Our policy is not one of just tolerance but acceptance,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said at a meeting with sports editors last year in New York.
But as much as that may be true philosophically in the ivory tower, it’s hard to know what that means in the trenches.
And there’s probably never been a test of that “policy” quite like this.
Only last week, as noted by The Times, New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma told the NFL Network he did not want a gay teammate.
One of the most vivid recent demonstrations of the potential pitfalls can be seen in the case of former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe.
In an article for Deadspin last month, Kluwe suggested he had been harassed and released in 2012 merely for his outspokenness on marriage equality.
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, Kluwe wrote, “said on multiple occasions that I would wind up burning in hell with the gays, and that the only truth was Jesus Christ and the Bible.”
Priefer denied the allegation or that he in any way discriminates. The Vikings promised to conduct a “thorough investigation.”
But last week Kluwe’s attorney, Clayton Halunen, told the St. Paul Pioneer-Press that was “a charade” and that he’s ready to file a lawsuit.
Perhaps more encouraging for Sam was the experience of former Baltimore Raven Brendon Ayanbadejo, a longtime advocate of support for gay marriage.
Ayanbadejo’s stance perhaps became most widely known in 2012 after a Maryland politician wrote a letter to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti asking him to “take the necessary action to inhibit such expressions from your employee.”
In the aftermath, the Ravens publicly supported Ayanbadejo’s right to express himself. And he told NPR the episode had fortified his cause.
“The support’s been coming worldwide. I’ve heard from other players on other teams. I’ve heard from fans from other teams. I’ve heard from people that didn’t even care about football that are now football fans and, of course, the LGBT community.
“This is something we need. We need it here in the United States, and the world needs it, and it’s time we start treating our brothers, sisters, friends, relatives equally just like anybody else is treated.”
Most likely, Sam will be stepping somewhere between the worlds that Kluwe and Ayanbadejo describe. And the scrutiny will be intense for an athlete who avoided the media almost altogether last season.
It’s believed Sam’s media shutdown was his own decision, and he told The Times he had the full support of teammates, coaches and administrators.
He did not elaborate on what tensions he had to contend with along the way.
But there were times of conflict to weather at MU, as would be expected in any large group from such divergent backgrounds, and the ultimate result appears to have been one that says all are welcome under Mizzou’s tent.
“Looking back, I take great pride in how Michael and everyone in our program handled his situation,” MU football coach Gary Pinkel said in a statement released Sunday. “This past August, Michael was very direct with the team when he decided to let everyone know that he is gay.
“We discussed how to deal with that from a public standpoint, and ultimately Michael decided that he didn’t want that to be the focal point of the season. He wanted to focus on football
“We left it that whenever he felt the time was right, however he wanted to make the announcement, that we had his back and we’d be right there with him.”
Mizzou athletics is known to have been taking measures to promote an atmosphere of inclusion with awareness workshops, known as “Men-for-Men” and “Women-for-Women,” and also by joining the “You Can Play” initiative.
That group’s mission “is dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.”
Athletic director Mike Alden appears in a related video MU released last April:
“The University of Missouri and the Mizzou athletic department strive to provide a safe environment for our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender student athletes,” he says. “No individual shall be judged on the court, in the locker room or amongst each other based on their sexual orientation (or) their gender identification.
“Mizzou (athletics) strive to provide acceptance through understanding, refraining from the use of homophobic language and rhetoric and all the while respecting the abilities and talents of all within the athletic department.”
From that backdrop, Sam has told what he wanted to now.
In his time and on his terms, as it should be.
How much he can keep things on his own terms now is just one of the many questions that come with this brave act.
It’s a moment that figures to change his life, and, alas, maybe not always happily.
But it’s also a moment bigger than him, and one that may represent another merciful step toward changing other lives for the better.