It didn’t take long for cold water to be thrown on the support being offered to Michael Sam after the former defensive lineman for the University of Missouri Tigers revealed he was gay ahead of the NFL draft.
The same night ESPN and The New York Times posted their interviews with Sam in which he publicly announced his homosexuality to the media, Sports Illustrated published its own story in which it talked to eight anonymous NFL executives and coaches, many of whom expressed doubt that his decision was wise considering his draft prospects. “There are guys in locker rooms that maturity-wise cannot handle it or deal with the thought of that," one assistant coach told Sports Illustrated. And while it’s true that some NFL players, like the New Orleans Saints’ Jonathan Vilma just last week, have made comments suggesting that openly gay football players would not be welcome in the locker room, many others took to social media to praise Sam for his decision.
Their well-wishes aside, Sam’s revelation has already appeared to have taken a toll on his draft prospects. Draft watchers woke up to find Sam had fallen 70 spots on the CBS draft prospect board and now some fear he won’t be drafted at all, despite playing an impressive season with the Tigers – which finished their 12-2 season by winning the Cotton Bowl – where he was voted by the team’s MVP and the AP’s SEC defensive player of the year.
Sam’s situation is not surprisingly being the compared to another male athlete who attempted to play on a professional American sports team after coming out as gay. NBA veteran Jason Collins revealed his sexuality last April after being released from the Washington Wizards and remains a free agent.. While there have been a number of former professional athletes – including some from the NFL – who have come out as openly gay since retiring, to be openly gay while still in uniform and on the field or court is a barrier yet to be broken in most professional male American sports leagues. (Only the Los Angeles Galaxy soccer team can count an openly gay man on its roster, with midfielder Robbie Rogers joining the team last year).
But there are many key differences between Sam and Collins. Collins, a mediocre player, came out when he was 34 and his career prospects were already dim. Sam is at the beginning of his career and it is a promising one – The New York Times found that analysts expected Sam to be a third round draft pick. It means Sam has more to lose than Collins by coming out even before the draft. But so does the NFL if it does skip over him. In addition to having noteworthy athletic abilities, Sam also told his Missouri teammates that he was gay last August and they played an entire season knowing (and impressively, keeping it quiet), which Sam’s supporters say dispels the notion that having an openly gay football player would threaten team dynamics.
Sam’s decision to come out when he did, months before May’s draft, was in part due to fear that his sexuality was about to be leaked anyway, but also to give news of his sexuality plenty of time to settle before teams would be deciding whether to take him on, according to a behind-the-scenes account in OutSports. His publicist also stressed he is “a football player, not an activist," and he would be focusing on his game rather than making political statements about his sexuality.
No matter his intentions to put football first, the extra time Sam has given NFL owners, coaches and managers to muddle over his sexuality (NFL public relations head Greg Aiello tweeted a statement of support from the league), could end up hurting him, Deadspin’s Drew Magary surmised, as it also gives scouts and other prognosticators opportunity to find flaws in his abilities – real or inflated – that could also be to blame if he is not drafted.
While Sam’s decision has been praised by everyone from GLAAD
to first lady Michelle Obama to his alma mater, the barrier he seeks to break
down he simply cannot dismantle on his own. Those hoping to see a gay athlete on a
professional football team will have to wait until May to see if the NFL will