I want to get this out of the way right off the bat. I find this story repulsive and I hope to never have to cover another like it. Sadly, I don't think this is a story that will go away anytime soon. Michael Sam, a senior defensive end at the University of Missouri, came out before the NFL Draft, paving his way to become the first openly gay player in the NFL. What a repugnant story. Let me rephrase, the story is not repugnant. That it is a story that needs to be covered 84 years after Hank Greenberg began his Hall of Fame career in the face of staggering anti-Semitism, 67 years after Jackie Robinson kicked down baseball's color barrier, and nearly 45 years after the brave men and women at Stonewall faced off against jackboots and billy clubs for the right to simply be gay in America is a stain on our national character. That any courage is required to simply be who you are in a football locker room is a cross we as a society still bear and must find a way to shed, though I fear it will take us some time.
It will be a wonderful day when being gay in the NFL will be as big a deal as being a Canadian playing for the Vancouver Canucks is, but don't expect change overnight. As I write this, I'm listening to sports talk-radio callers lament Sam's decision to come out. Why couldn't he simply keep it under his hat, they wonder. It has nothing to do with football, he should have just kept his mouth shut, they opine. Good points, anonymous callers. Why couldn't he just live the rest of his life in secrecy, hiding from cameras and lying away rumors? Football teams like to think of themselves as family, a metaphorical band of brothers wading into mock battle together. Teams travel together, study together, eat, sweat, and bleed together. That Sam should feel compelled never to talk about the person he loves or the person who broke his heart or even the person he thinks is hot with his teammates is as natural as breathing-why not ask him to never mention his mom, his hometown, or what he had for dinner last night?
It can be easy to forget what this young man is facing. It requires no bravery for me to bang away at my keyboard championing equality in an alt-weekly in Baltimore. But Sam lives in a world where bigotry is not just accepted, it's justified. "I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," an NFL player personnel assistant told Sports Illustrated. "In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room." The most shocking thing about this statement is that this NFL executive has a startling lack of understanding as to what constitutes a chemical imbalance, and that he still considers the phrase "man's man" to be particularly straight. The bigotry, unfortunately, is expected. SI asked eight NFL coaches and executives about Sam, everyone of them said it would hurt his draft stock. New NFL players are paid according to where they are drafted, so in affect these representatives of the NFL are stating flatly that Sam will be paid less than a straight athlete. Lawsuits have been won over less.
To be clear, Michael Sam is not a star. No one thinks he's the second coming of Bruce Smith or Reggie White, and he works in the bizarre world of football defensive linemen, where being 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds means you are small, but there's no doubt the kid can play. The argument goes, however, that having a gay on the team will cause the sky to fall, the team bus to explode, and the cheerleaders to burst into flames, and those are just the good things. So what happened after Sam told his teammates he was gay before this past season? Sam picked up 11 and half sacks and 19 tackles for loss on a Missouri team that went 12-2 and won the Cotton Bowl, was a first-team all-American, and was named the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Maybe it's fair to assume that he only got all those sacks because right-minded homophobic offensive linemen didn't want to block him lest they get some gay on them, but, more likely, he's just pretty damn good. And I'm pretty sure that the next time Sam blows up a running back forcing a fumble, one of his teammates will overcome any religious qualms to fall on the ball. I mean, he's already gotten over the whole touching-the-skin-of-a-pig thing, being decent to another human being shouldn't be a problem.
For 90 percent of the players in the NFL, if you can help them win a Super Bowl, it doesn't matter what you do with the rest of your life. Did you cover up a stabbing? Yes? But you can stuff the run? Take the locker next to mine. You've been accused of raping numerous women in bar bathrooms? Oh, but you can throw a tight spiral 70 yards downfield? How do you feel about being team captain? That guy you hit drunk driving didn't survive? Here's a more important question: Can you still run a 4.4 40? Here's your playbook. The NFL and our sporting culture in general is constantly willing to make excuses for moral failings in the face of talent, but somehow it's accepted that we overlook bravery in the face of bigotry. There's no excuse that needs to be made for Michael Sam. He doesn't have "character issues," by all accounts he's living a good life and being a good teammate, yet for worry that some future teammate will imagine Sam's homosexuality as a speck of sawdust to be poked at while ignoring the plank of bigotry in their own eye, this young man's future hangs in the balance. It's time to abandon the excuses and instead celebrate Michael Sam, all-American, because is there anything more truly all-American than standing up for what's right, than suffering the slings and arrows of cruel fools to simply live the life you were born to?