Columnists, Sports

Foul Shots: Michael Sam: The pioneer

There has never been an active gay football player in the NFL. Several players have come out after leaving the league, including Ray McDonald and Wade Davis. In other words, there’s never been a great, or even really good, NFL player who has publicly come out as being gay.

Why is that? The answer is pretty obvious. Football is, at its core, an extraordinarily macho activity. Players smash into each other at top speed, hoping to knock each other down and avoid being knocked down themselves. It’s a dog-eat-dog world.

Many believe that gay men are effeminate, incapable of partaking in vigorous physical activity that their heterosexual counterparts excel in. Some believe that gay men aren’t cut out for the violent sport of football, but there is no scientific verification of this stereotype. Professional boxer Orlando Cruz, a man at the absolute peak of his considerable physical abilities, is gay. He punches people (and gets punched) for a living. And he’s quite good at it. If that doesn’t disprove the “gay equals physically weak” theory, I don’t know what does.

But there’s also the thought that a gay man would not be accepted in the hyper-masculine world of the NFL. This idea holds much more water than the stereotype listed above because I can see how a straight player might feel uncomfortable showering with a gay teammate. Chris Culliver, a defensive back playing for the San Francisco 49ers, was particularly vocal about his distaste for homosexual football players, saying that “Can’t be with that sweet stuff … Nah … can’t be in the locker room, man.” This point of view is no doubt shared by many of Culliver’s NFL peers.

But football can’t go on with its head buried in the sand, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge and accept gay players. Thankfully, it seems as though football may finally have its own Jason Collins: a college player, who likely will be drafted come April, named Michael Sam. Can he carry the flag for gay players in the NFL, and indeed in major professional sports as a whole? Will teams avoid drafting him because of his “baggage?” An interesting parallel to Sam, in terms of the media craziness sure to follow him throughout his NFL career, is Tim Tebow.

Tebow became a media darling thanks not only to his two national titles and his Heisman Trophy, but also thanks to his oft-proclaimed religion. The circus followed Tebow throughout his time with the Denver Broncos (when he was a semi-competent NFL quarterback) and New York Jets, but he is now out of the NFL.

If the media will obsess over a player for something as innocuous as his religious beliefs, or his hard-partying image (Johnny Manziel’s case), imagine what they’ll be like with Michael Sam, the first active gay man in the four major American pro sports. It’ll be absolutely insane. Let’s say he is drafted by the Patriots in the fourth round. After the first day of training camp in the summer, the media will largely ignore Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork and the team’s other established veterans. They’ll gravitate to Sam. That sort of pressure and attention is rarely lavished on mid-round picks. With a few exceptions, they labor in anonymity until they give some sort of reason to be known. Teams may balk at that, and it won’t even be Sam’s fault. They might want to avoid the added pressure on the team and might not want one player to be the center of attention. And Sam could get left out in the cold, with no team to play for unless he can sign on as an undrafted free agent.

If Sam isn’t drafted, it’s a crying shame. He led the Southeastern Conference (the best conference in college football) in sacks this season, and is a fearsome rusher off the outside edge from his defensive end position. He was a First-Team All-SEC selection, won the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and was a First-Team All-American. There’s no reason he should not be drafted, unless he tears an ACL or kills someone before April. According to ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr., Sam is a mid-round prospect and should go anywhere in the third to fifth rounds in the draft.

Regardless of whether Sam is drafted or not, the fact that he’s trying to be a trailblazer for gay athletes is admirable. The situation is like Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in baseball back in 1947. Fans and organizations alike knew that it would happen eventually, but teams weren’t willing to step up and sign Robinson. It’s the same for Sam. We knew a gay athlete was coming in major professional sports. And I think we’re finally ready for him. With gay marriage quickly becoming legal across the country, it’s time for pro sports, football especially, to get out of the 1960’s.

Welcome to the NFL, Michael Sam. We’ve been expecting you.

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