There was some huge news out of the US today: Missouri college footballer Michael Sam announced to the world that he is gay.
I’m only being slightly facetious when I write that this is “huge news.” Because, assuming he gets drafted this US Spring (and I believe it is likely he will) he will become the first openly gay player in the NFL – a sport watched by millions of Americans, homophobic and liberal alike.
There are a couple of reasons why this is good for the NFL, and America, in general. Obviously it challenges the conventional stereotype of the NFL player. It throws down the gauntlet to NFL teams to institute a cultural change within their ranks. There will be gay players. You will need to be cool with that.
Sam has the potential to be a critically important figure in the gay rights movement. On the other hand, he could be just a footnote.
It will all depend, now, on how his career progresses.
Unlike NBA veteran Jason Collins, who came out recently, Sam is young, and at the cusp of a potentially long and distinguished career. Collins’ bravery in coming out has been somewhat diluted by the fact that he is, to be honest, just not a good enough player to make a serious impact.
The 34-year-old is currently without a team – and it’s hard to be a key public figure for a gay rights movement when you’re unemployed and on the NBA scrap heap.
Some suggested at the time that Collins was simply trying to draw attention to his own free agency, in the hopes of scoring another NBA contract. If this was his goal, unlikely as it seems, then it failed.
It’s a somewhat similar story for NBA prospect Royce White, who was recently waived by the Philadelphia 76ers. White, a Rara Avis if ever there was one, suffers from an anxiety disorder. His battles have been well-documented by Chuck Klosterman on The Public Apology’s sister publication, Grantland. He has been incredibly outspoken on the issue of mental illness among athletes.
White called on his former employers, the Houston Rockets, to implement a mental health protocol, according to Klosterman, which hinged on White’s personal psychiatrist deciding when he is fit to play. However, the NBA is a big business – and White’s output was deemed not worth all the hassle. After all, he had issues with flying – not ideal given the absurd number of NBA games per season – and has a history of panic attacks during games.
White never played a minute for the Rockets, and he’s languished ever since. Sadly, risk triumphed over reward.
Sam’s career trajectory from here on in will be interesting to watch. He has already done “the hardest part” for a gay professional athlete – before even turning professional.
However, this article here indicates that Sam will face some serious hurdles – both on and off-field – now that he has come out. One NFL assistant coach called it “not a smart move,” and one that may impact his earnings potential. It seems that many key figures in the NFL believe the sport is simply not ready for an openly gay player.
Of course, in an ideal world we would be so cool with this so that he wouldn’t feel the need, as a young NFL draftee, to publicly announce his preference for men. But this is the world we live in – and we need more Sams before that can be a reality.
Here’s hoping he doesn’t turn out to be a draft bust.
By Dave Edwards