A Welcome Distraction

NFL executives have to face the reality of gay athletes.

Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam (52) pushes past a block by Mississippi offensive linesman Pierce Burton (71) in the second half of a NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, in Oxford, Miss. No. 8 Missouri won 24-10.

Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam pushes past a block.

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Over the weekend, Michael Sam – an All-American defensive end from the University of Missouri – publicly announced that he is gay, setting him up to be the National Football League’s first openly gay player if, as expected, he is drafted in May. The response to Sam’s courageous move showed both the best and the worst of the league he hopes to join.

In the encouraging column, a slew of current players voiced their support. Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith, for instance, tweeted this:

 Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams added:

And Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz simply said: “Good for him.”

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

But over at Sports Illustrated, a group of NFL executives – hiding behind the veil of anonymity, of course – had much less kind things to say. "I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," said one. "At this point in time it's still a man's-man game. ... It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room." Another said: "If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it? It's going to be a big distraction. That's the reality. It shouldn't be, but it will be."

Those same executives also raised the specter of Jason Collins, the NBA player who came out as gay and subsequently couldn’t find a team willing to sign him. (That he was a marginally effective player at the tail-end of his career certainly didn’t help.)

But I think both the case of Collins and, even more so, the case of Robbie Rogers, the openly gay midfielder for Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy, provides optimism that the unnamed executives are on the losing end of this one and that their views will be marginalized sooner rather than later. After Collins came out, polls showed wide acceptance and support for him among the public, and even among self-identified conservatives. For Rogers, after the initial hoopla following his announcement died down, the focus was much more on the fact that he had a lousy season, rather than his sexual orientation.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the 2014 Sochi Olympics.]

That jibes with the direction in which public support for gay rights is generally headed. According to a Pew Research Center poll, for instance, 72 percent of Americans said they believed government recognition of gay marriage is inevitable. One of the most striking features of the 2012 presidential campaign, to my mind, was the extent to which President Obama’s embrace of gay marriage was a nonissue. Opponents of gay rights surely still exist, but the writing is on the wall, and more and more of them realize it.

As one general manager told Sports Illustrated's Peter King (in an article separate from the one mentioned above): “Should I really care? ... Is it going to be that big a deal? Aren’t we beyond this?” And yes, we should be. To some extent, as The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates laid out, the NFL will never be “ready” for a gay player until it has one, but the kvetching and caterwauling of the unnamed NFL executives worried about distractions or locker room unity doesn’t make a ton of sense considering that Missouri – where Sam was out to his teammates – just had a spectacular season and voted Sam its most valuable player. If only every squad had a distraction like that! Sam shows that the executives wailing and gnashing their teeth are, at this point, just digging up excuses, not pointing to a legitimate reason for keeping a gay player out of the league. 

Some day, gay athletes in major sports leagues will be a nonissue, akin to African-Americans playing now. (Of course, racism against those players still exists, but it gets widely and rightly condemned every time it makes a high-profile appearance.) If Sam makes that day come a little sooner, he'll have done a truly monumental thing.