Openly Gay NFL Prospect Michael Sam Is a Test for the League

Michael Sam of the Missouri Tigers celebrates with fans after the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Commonwealth Stadium on Nov. 9, 2013 in Lexington, Kentucky Photograph by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Michael Sam, an All-American defensive lineman from the University of Missouri, came out publicly yesterday. “I am an openly, proud gay man,” he told ESPN. Sam is preparing for the NFL draft in May, and if he’s chosen, he’ll be the first publicly gay player in the league. His status as a pioneer was complicated even before it began. The first problem, as this account from OutSports shows, was managing the press. Sam’s teammates at Missouri have known since last summer. In the past few weeks, NFL scouts had begun asking not-very-subtle questions about Sam’s personal life, and a handful of news outlets had caught wind of the story. They waited to let Sam break the news, as he chose, to ESPN and the New York Times.

That delicate process was only the beginning. Sam aims to enter a workplace where the culture is often less than progressive, violence is a part of the job, nudity is routine, teamwork is paramount, and a fuzzy border between hazing and harassment is frequently crossed. Sam’s status as an openly gay man shouldn’t change his NFL experience, but it inevitably will. The NFL has put out a statement welcoming Sam, and many players have expressed support. Yet there is already an anonymous chorus of NFL insiders saying that the league is “not ready.”

Wade Davis, a former NFL defensive back who came out after his playing career ended, downplays the problems Sam might face. “I’m not going to sit here and say that it’s going to be lollipops and candy canes,” he says, “There are going to be one or two players who have a problem with it, but the majority of NFL players are so much more worldly and sophisticated than we give them credit for.” Players, Davis says, have a long record of cooperating in a diverse workplace. “There is going to be some friction,” he says, “but that would happen at the post office.”

Davis has reason to be optimistic. He is part of a support group helping Sam through the process. Saying that the league is ready can help make it so. Sam, Davis points out, already knows what it’s like to be an openly gay football player. “The one thing people are forgetting, he did this at Missouri,” says Davis, “in the SEC, in a locker room space that people imagine to be homophobic, also in the middle of America, which also has this myth about being homophobic.”

The NFL and its players have been preparing for an openly gay player for years. And with the draft still three months away, Sam will have the benefit of giving fellow players time to adjust. “By the time he gets to the first day of camp, guys will have thought about it,” says Davis, “They will have reached out to other players to say, ‘Hey, what do you think?’ I would imagine most of them go, ‘Hey, this boy can play. I want a championship.’”

Locker room solidarity, Davis argues, will play in Sam’s favor. His teammates will tease him, and his sexuality will not be out of bounds, but they will protect him from outsiders. “You’ll have players say, ‘I can mess with him, but you can’t because he is one of our brothers,’” says Davis. Outright bullying of the kind that came to light last fall in the Miami Dolphins’ locker room, he says, is the exception. Unwitting bias, more than open hostility, is the concern. “The most difficult part will be when somebody puts a microphone in front of another player’s face, and he says something that the rest of the world deems inappropriate but is said in honesty,” he says.

In a candid conversation with Andrea Kremer, the NFL’s chief correspondent for player health and safety, New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma asked hypothetically how was supposed to respond if a gay player looked at him in the shower. These awkward moments, Davis says, are a valuable opportunity. “If no one says what Jonathan Vilma said, and we don’t have a chance to talk about it, how can we ever grow?,” he asks. “You can say, ‘Jonathan, haven’t you seen another guy’s penis in the locker room too? You don’t want it, and neither does Michael Sam.’”

The alternative for Sam, Davis notes, is a life in the closet, surrounded by rumors. “[Sam] doesn’t have to live with what I lived with, the internalized homophobia, the double consciousness. He can focus strictly on football like every other player.” Sam and the NFL are hoping he’s right.

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