Over the past few days there has been a lot of news about University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam announcement of his sexuality and his possible future in the National Football League. At first I didn’t see what the fuss was all about and why so much attention was being given to this football player. Sam had been out to his former Missouri Tiger teammates since last August so his announcement to them and to anyone who knew him was nothing out of the ordinary yet his “coming out” was on ESPN, The New York Times, and Outsports.
Yet no person currently playing in the NFL is openly gay and if Sam is drafted to the NFL in May, he would technically hold the title. His decision for coming out was not be the making headlines in the news but for him to own his truth. In The New York Times interview, he said that when he was playing in the Senior Bowl he wasn’t aware of how many people didn’t know he was openly gay so he wanted to own his moment before anyone broke the story later on.
He did right in doing so on his own terms and telling his story the way he wanted to rather than have reporters stalking his house and the media hounding him for information. He said he knew this was a big deal but that his purpose was to play football, and he did not want to be defined as “the gay football player” but rather for being a good person and having good character.
I believe he is handling this moment in the way any professional person would. He wants to be judged by the fact that he is a great football player. As we go for job interviews our sexuality isn’t put in question whether we can perform the job or not, but rather the skills we possess. His circumstance is heightened by the fact that he could be the first openly gay NFL player but should that matter?
The NFL is very much a very masculine/macho sport and players and executives have been supportive of Sam possibly playing for the league; however, some of the concern has not been whether Sam can play football or not but rather what happens behind the scenes in the locker room.
Two weeks ago New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said in an NFL Network interview, “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?”
Although he retracted his statement later on Anderson Cooper 360, his statement is a concern for other players in the locker room. If you think about it, these men take showers together and statistically speaking the chances that a gay player has showered in the same locker room, yet none of those possible players have been out like Sam. There is a certain locker room culture these men have and having an openly gay teammate could change the dynamic of that.
Former Minnesota Viking player Chris Kluwe, who is a same-sex marriage supporter, stated on Anderson Cooper 360 that there is a small minority of players who might feel the way Vilma expressed it but in the past eight years of his professional career, he has seen a shift to more tolerable and acceptance. He said that the problem isn’t with the players but rather the people in charge of signing the paychecks who might be more hesitant in signing an openly gay player like Sam.
Hopefully what Sam has done by coming out is open the door for future players to not be afraid to be openly gay and the real issue would only be, not their sexuality, but rather their professional skill to play football.