NFL prospect comes out but faces challenges

The culture of football and of the NFL still needs to change to welcome gay athletes.

Trent M. Kays

College football player and National Football League prospect Michael Sam declared he was gay earlier this month. The act of coming out seems to be happening more and more in American culture. I’m happy to see such acts because they are marks of progress. However, being gay in America can still be a dangerous position.

I’m confident there are closeted professional football players. What makes Sam different is that he’s not technically a professional football player yet. Well, he’s not “professional” in the sense of the NFL, but he has demonstrated the behavior of a mature professional.

I’m not one beholden to the sports world. I played sports as a child and in high school, but other than those brief flirtations, I’ve never been fond of sports. So, for me, the idea that one’s sexual orientation could alter their athletic performance has always seemed asinine. Yet, in the NFL, it appears this is one of the criteria for proper performance.

Of course, I’m being slightly facetious. I doubt that being gay in the NFL has anything to do with performance. In fact, it probably has more to do with bigotry and complete narcissism than anything else. That’s the world Sam is about to enter, but he has done something noble. Sam has chosen to enter that world as a complete and full human being. He’s not entering into it under a veil of something he is not.

In a more progressive society, we wouldn’t have a reason to celebrate Sam’s beautiful revelation. I imagine that one day, our country will treat coming out as a non-event. Sam is a football player, and no one will care who he loves. However, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of Sam’s announcement in context of the worlds he lives in.

Being a black, gay football player in America certainly isn’t at the top of the list for many, but it does shatter some of the notions of what “gay” actually is. Most who seem to protest gay athletes are those who feel they would be the subjects of lurid encounters in the locker room.

I’m sure the scene would look something like this: A lone gay football player saunters into the locker room with his towel precariously tied around his waist. The steam wafts around him as he approaches another football player who cowers at his advances. And then what?

Does anyone believe this would actually happen? The amount of self-absorption is astounding. As if there is a gaggle of gay fan boys outside the locker room waiting to pounce on the hyper-masculine and heterosexual football players. It’s ridiculous, and still, there are players who may vilify the possibility of gay athletes.

In response to Sam’s announcement, New York Giants player Terrell Thomas made it clear that some players “walk around completely naked all the time,” and if they knew a gay football player was there, “they might not want to do that anymore.”

It seems Thomas believes that the presence of an openly gay football player will encourage the other football players to not walk around naked in the locker room anymore. What a sight to not behold. The one new fact that someone is gay doesn’t change their behavior any more than it would change the ocean tides. If Thomas knows one of his fellow players is gay, does that mean he won’t walk around naked? Probably not. I mean, it is still a locker room.

Some NFL “insiders” suggested that Sam’s status of being gay would make him a difficult draft pick because football teams will not want to deal with all of the attention from the press. Indeed, Sam’s integrity to be his full self before entering the draft may hurt him. But what if coming out helps Sam? He is a celebrated college football player that any team would be better off having. The NFL culture clearly is one that values the ability of players to play, while considering their personal lives as secondary. This is obvious because they readily allow alleged rapists and alleged murderers to contribute to the game.

So the culture, while seemingly accepting, may not be the most accepting. Sam knows this, and he’s prepared himself for it. Perhaps what is most wonderful about his announcement is that he made it before anything serious happened. He set up his platform and has shown that if you want him, you’ll have to take him as he is. That’s heroic, especially given the culture he’s entering.

There are NFL players who support his decision, and the outpouring of support from tertiary communities has been fabulous and noteworthy.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers player Tom Crabtree tweeted, “Good for Michael Sam. Takes courage for where he is in his career and where we are as a league. I applaud him.” So Sam has support, and that’s important.

In the culture Sam is about to enter, support will be vital from those around him. I can support Sam’s status, but it means little to the culture in which he resides. Pundits, politicians and activists can applaud or deride Sam all they wish. However, it ultimately means nothing without Sam’s fellow football players and coaching staff. They are the leaders of the NFL culture in which Sam’s homosexuality is an issue.

There seems to be enough support from individuals within the NFL that we can hope the voices of those who still hold on to bigotry and ignorance will be drowned out. We can hope that in 20 years, we will look back and realize the trail Sam is blazing. It’s a trail that many more will surely follow.