For the NFL, this is where the rubber meets the road.
The SEC’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Michael Sam, shocked the NFL community over the weekend by becoming the first openly-gay NFL draft prospect.
"I'm not afraid of who I am," Sam told Outside the Lines journalist Chris Connelly. "I'm not afraid to tell the world who I am. I'm Michael Sam, I'm a college graduate, I'm African-American and I'm gay."
Last season, Sam swept onto the scene like a supercell tornado, throwing offensive linemen and quarterbacks in different directions en route to becoming the SEC’s most destructive pass rusher, while leading the maligned Missouri Tigers to their first SEC Championship Game.
Rather than keeping his life away from football more secretive than Aaron Hernandez’s flop house, Sam methodically initiated the process of revealing his sexuality months ago. Inevitably, the media firestorm surrounding Sam will only ramp up in the weeks leading up to the combine on February 22 and May’s NFL Draft.
The reaction from Sam’s Missouri teammates was most intriguing. Not only did they respect his privacy by not outing him, but they were relieved when he ‘fessed up to what most of them already suspected, as he told them about his sexual orientation last summer.
During one of those team-building activities in which the players were asked to tell something about themselves that most people don’t know, Sam opted against the boilerplate answers, like his fear of water or horses , according to The New York Times.
One by one, players were asked to talk about themselves — where they grew up, why they chose Missouri and what others might not know about them.
As Michael Sam, a defensive lineman, began to speak, he balled up a piece of paper in his hands. “I’m gay,” he said. With that, Mr. Sam set himself on a path to become the first publicly gay player in the National Football League.
“I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their heads — like, finally, he came out,” Mr. Sam said Sunday in an interview with The New York Times, the first time he had spoken publicly about his sexual orientation.
Defensive players are usually blank slates behind their facemasks and visors, but Sam just became football’s most visible defender not named Richard Sherman.
Sam arrived in Columbia as a two-star prospect in 2008 and his previous career-high for sacks was just 4.5 during his junior year. After he told his teammates, Sam began donning rainbow-colored rubber bands as a subtle form of subtle activism and elevated his play, becoming a first team All-American.
There will ultimately be an inevitable backlash from bigoted fans and Internet thugs trying to get under his skin. There will also be dissent from within his own locker room, as some NFL players would rather leave their girls around Antonio Cromartie than shower with an openly gay football player.
One NFL general manager actually told MMQB Editor-in-Chief Peter King that he believes this admission will cause Sam to fall from a third round possibility to the abyss of undrafted free agency.
“First of all, we don’t think he’s a very good player. The reality is he’s an overrated football player in our estimation. Second: He’s going to have expectations about where he should be drafted, and I think he’ll be disappointed. He’s not going to get drafted where he thinks he should. The question you will ask yourself, knowing your team, is, ‘How will drafting him affect your locker room?’ And I am sorry to say where we are at this point in time, I think it’s going to affect most locker rooms. A lot of guys will be uncomfortable. Ten years from now, fine. But today, I think being openly gay is a factor in the locker room.”
Until there’s an active, second pro athlete in one of the four major pro sports to come out, Sam will remain somewhat of a novelty. Jason Collins never played in an NBA game after coming out last year. Cynics will note that Collins was a fringe rotation player inching towards retirement.
Sam has been anointed to be the Jackie Robinson of gay athletes, however, 42 wasn’t the first black major league baseball player. He was just the first one to suit up for a Major League Baseball club. There was a bustling Negro Leagues brimming with talent in the 1940’s and during Robinson’s rookie season, Cleveland Indians centerfielder Larry Doby made his debut as the American League’s first African-American.
Thirty-nine years ago, retired NFL running back Dan Kopay waited until the conclusion of his playing career to come out the closet. Over the course of the next four decades, four other NFL players, the NBA's John Amaechi, in addition to the aforementioned Collins followed suit. Persistent rumors last summer that former Pro Bowl safety Kerry Rhodes was gay essentially left him in football limbo known as free agency and without a job.
Robinson proved that African-Americans could thrive in what was considered “a white man’s game”.
Soon, MLB was rife with African-American talent. Similarly, an openly-gay man in the NFL would destroy the caricature that has been fostered by pop culture. Sam, in the trenches, engaging in combat, is counterintuitive to many of the less-informed in today’s society.
This is where the rubber meets the road. Once the initial curiosity dies down, Sam will either be the first leak in a steady drip leading to an eventual flood of openly gay pro athletes, or the stigma will remain and Sam will be an outlier instead of a pioneer.
His will be a case study for other college or pro athletes that will consider following his lead.
Sam has disclosed that he has no interest, at this point in his career, in activism. Making history is great, but in a meritocracy, the best way for him to cement his legacy will be to slap on a helmet, trot onto the field and become an activist for sacking quarterbacks.
Sam isn’t done making stands though. He has struggled in his transition to 3-4 outside linebacker because of his unfamiliarity with backpedaling in coverage. The most important cause for Sam to protest, moving forward, will be the tweener stereotype that holds back undersized, 4-3 defensive end prospects.
Jackie Robinson was chosen to break MLB’s color barrier by Branch Rickey because he had the temperament to withstand the abuse that he would be subjected to. Sam’s margin for error is already miniscule and any missteps will be held against him.
The combine, and Missouri’s Pro Day, lie ahead for Sam. Progress has been made for the gay community. Now he needs to focus on himself and football, nothing else, to ensure that his story doesn’t end on draft day.