You may not have heard of Michael Sam before today, but by week’s end, he’ll be a household name. If you think the media can take a story, cover it 24/7, wash it, rinse it, reuse it a hundred types of ways before it finally let’s it go… you ain’t seen nothing yet. Such is the media blitz expected to surround Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam, a top NFL prospect, who as of yesterday came out as openly gay. If drafted, he would be the first openly gay athlete in the NFL.
What’s interesting is how masterfully orchestrated his coming out was. Seriously, you’d think Olivia Pope had a hand in it. His agents from Empire Athletes consulted with publicist Howard Bragman and ultimately handed the story to ESPN and the New York Times to break, adjusting initial timelines as rumors and leaks of Sam’s news became more prevalent. The story filed just in time for the NFL combine, which is next week in Indianapolis. Sam is invited and due to arrive Feb. 21.
Putting himself under the media probe takes much “courage”. It’s a word I’m sure you’ll hear often in the coming weeks, but one can not deny the appropriateness of that descriptor.
Not only is he subjecting himself to major media scrutiny, his announcement, as Sports Illustrated deduced after interviewing several NFL execs, could actually hinder his appeal to some teams. Sam is not a first or second round draft pick. So though, he is very much NFL material, some teams may pass, opting to choose an athlete with similar talents, and a quieter story line.
Then there’s the prospect of what happens if he is actually drafted. His teammates at Missouri were very supportive. So much so, they applauded him for coming out (hinting that it was about time). But as recent headlines have imlplied, the NFL locker room can be a cruel and intolerant place fraught with machismo, testosterone, and puerile behavior. Miami Dolphins’s player Jonathan Martin left the team alleging that the bullying was out of control.
Then there are inevitably players of the mindset of New Orleans Saint’s linebacker Jonathan Vilma who during an interview with Andrea Kramer for NFL Network said he would not welcome a gay team mate. For the record, I find it hard to believe that this question and Sam’s announcement within a week of each other was arbitrary. Nonetheless, her’es how Vilma responded.
“I think he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted. I don’t want people to just naturally assume, oh, we’re all homophobic. That’s really not the case. Imagine if he’s the guy next to me, and you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me, how am I supposed to respond?”
Now of course Vilma’s assumption that he’s so attractive a gay man would be unable to take his eyes off of him is outlandish, but it does shed light into common perceptions of gay athletes in the NFL. In a hyper-masculine sport, where men assert their dominance on the field, having a player that so-called “swings for the other team” is bound to ruffle some feathers.
Of course it’s time that we’ve broken through this barrier. And I very much believe that Michael Sam is being positioned to be the media darling and poster-child for gay acceptance in the NFL and other sports teams. I salute him for his willingness to come out at this critical point in his career, because I’m sure, it will not be an easy ride.
This story can go so many ways. What do you think about an openly gay player in the NFL? Will fans be excited, apathetic or hostile to the idea? And if there are any male athletes reading this… What do you think he can expect in the locker room?