When the University of Missouri’s Michael Sam came out publicly in 2014 and in the process became poised to be the NFL’s first openly gay player, the story wasn’t merely about boldly defying stereotypes.
It was about a prominent example of hope for those bullied for being different or who suffer in silence, afraid to be themselves for fear of rejection and all that may come with it.
Paradoxically enough, it also was about inching closer to the day when such an announcement might not make headlines — a day when acceptance eclipses the notion of grudging tolerance.
Consider, too, the active ingredient of societal influence that bubbles up from our most popular sports:
If they could feel safe in the melting pot of the locker room, it also would have implications well beyond those walls.
That day isn’t quite here yet, or Kansas State offensive lineman Scott Frantz’s story wouldn’t have been national news and he wouldn’t have been in tears as he revealed to his teammates he was gay during a players-only bonding exercise in 2015, a revelation made public by ESPN on Thursday.
“I’ve never felt so loved and so accepted ever in my life than when I did that,” Frantz told ESPN reporter Holly Rowe.
Yet if the day this is non-news isn’t here, it’s at least on the horizon.
Frantz’s story is part of what Outsports.com co-founder Cyd Zeigler believes is a “new normal.”
“We’ve got to stop talking about football, particularly big-time football, as though it is homophobic and its coaches and players are homophobic,” Zeigler said in a phone interview. “They are not. They’re not. It is a lie. You can’t say that any more.”
This isn’t just a spot assessment from Zeigler. In interviewing NFL rookies and players past such as Kurt Warner a few years ago, Zeigler came to believe the terrain had changed because so many told of their own acceptance.
Locker rooms, it turned out, weren’t inhabited by football players living in a vacuum.
They were occupied by men who may have gay family members, friends and teammates — and were acknowledging that.
“All these players who are coming out, they’re not changing the culture,” Zeigler said. “They’re showing how the culture has already changed in football.”
Just the same, Frantz represents another substantial step in several ways.
Because he is only a sophomore, he will be more visible as a player after coming out than was Sam, who was drafted in the seventh round by the Rams but didn’t make the team and later was waived from the Dallas Cowboys practice squad.
Because Frantz is one of at least five openly gay players in college football this year, including freshman My-King Johnson at Arizona, a trend that can only comfort those looking for encouragement.
Because of the momentous statement it evoked from 77-year-old coach Bill Snyder, who in the process added to his own remarkable profile.
“What impressed me about this story is that Scott really thought that he could assist others who were experiencing perhaps the same thing or something very similar to this,” Snyder said in a release. “And that hit home with me. And you know I wanted him to have the opportunity to be able to assist others who may be in a somewhat similar situation not necessarily in athletics but just in general.”
“I was quite comfortable that (our team) would be very receptive and that they would treat him as they always have — as his teammate and someone that they cared about. And they did.”
Perhaps also meaningful in all this is where so many of these steps have been taking place: right here in the conservative heart of America.
It was happening at Benedictine, a Catholic university in Atchison, Kan., where Jallen Messersmith of Blue Springs became the first openly gay college men’s basketball player in 2013.
It was unfolding in Columbia, where some 2,000 people lined Stadium Boulevard on a frigid February day in 2014 to form a peaceful human wall to “Stand for Sam” and muffle a hate group masquerading in Christianity.
It has played out in the offices of the Chiefs, where a small group within the organization helped Ryan O’Callaghan find the will to live rather than commit suicide as he had planned.
“All I had ever done was think how bad the reaction would be,” O’Callaghan told Outsports as he spoke of being deterred from his idea because of the concern of then-head athletic trainer David Price and sympathetic ears and steadfast support of clinical psychologist Susan Wilson and former general manager Scott Pioli.
Naturally, considering Pioli said in the same story that he had counseled other gay players and has a number of gay people in his life.
And now Frantz, who’s from Lawrence, comes out at Kansas State.
“We’re not talking about … New York City; we’re talking about Manhattan, Kansas,” Zeigler said.
Noting Sam and Johnson and the other current college football players who are out, he added, “For years I kept being told, ‘It’s easy being gay in New York City and Chicago and Los Angeles, but the rest of the country hates gay people.’
“If people open their eyes, they will see that this huge swath of the middle of the country that we painted as homophobic, this entire sport of football that we painted as homophobic, is just wrong. It’s not reality in 2017.”
That doesn’t mean it can be assumed everyone on the K-State football team immediately was fully into this.
Not any more than that was true at Mizzou, where Sam’s teammates honored his trust and overwhelmingly embraced him but there nonetheless were moments of unpublicized conflict.
“Not everybody is going to be totally accepting of this,” Zeigler said. “I’m sure that Scott had some teammates who don’t ‘agree’ with his being gay.”
But what might be surmised is this:
The prevailing culture now is at least trending toward one in which acceptance is the norm and rejection an exception that is being put aside, if not isolated.
“You learn very quickly in football … you better get along with everybody or the train is going to leave you behind because we’re going forward,” Zeigler said.
That didn’t necessarily make it easy for Frantz, of course.
“The definition of courage is acting in the face of fear; courage is the opposite of fearlessness,” Zeigler said. “(Frantz) was not fearless when he came out to his team. He was courageous.
“And when one sees courage in another person, it gives them more strength to do the same.”
And one more step toward making such a story routine.