Homosexuality and professional sports have rarely seemed to collide publicly, especially in the United States. In fact, football, arguably the most popular game in the U.S., has never had an openly gay athlete play in the NFL. This may change in the near future.
All-American defensive lineman Michael Sam from the University of Missouri came out to the world in an interview with ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” last Sunday. As a prospect in the upcoming NFL draft, if Sam is drafted he will be the first openly homosexual player to compete professionally in the sport.
Support poured in through all outlets of social media and overpowered any negativity on the subject. Many praised Sam for his courage and “guts” in his decision to announce his personal life choices. Others worried it may be too early for an openly gay athlete in the league, some thinking the organization would not be ready for such a large change.
Sadly their concerns are not unfounded. Many players know that it is not uncommon for locker room talk where gay slurs are freely flung around without a second thought as to who they might insult. Would the team Sam joins be afraid to offend him and not act naturally toward him? Or worse, could they ostracize him merely because they are unsure how to deal with his situation, because it is something entirely new to the league?
Hopefully these fears won’t affect his opportunities, because it is worth the risk. Not only is Sam deserving of being drafted, but change always has to start somewhere. Why shouldn’t it begin here? New, delicate situations like this are always going to be intimidating, but breaking down barriers like these always creates more opportunity for those in the future. Sam could be a role model for others simply by playing the game he loves and being brave enough to be honest with those who watch him for it.
There is something to be said for the timing of Sam’s coming out and the implication that it has left. While gay rights are constantly receiving more and more attention, there is also great progression that is being made, namely the legalization of gay marriage in certain states. If the government is declaring laws that progress gay rights, why are sports fans shocked that an openly homosexual football player could play in the NFL?
When it comes to major league sports like football, basketball, hockey or baseball, an openly gay player may not be what initially comes to mind. And while that’s not expected to change overnight, it should be something that becomes less surprising.
At the end of the day, it should come down to talent and how well the game is played. Does Sam’s sexual orientation make him any more, or less, of a player? No. Like others that may follow suit, he is just as good now as he was before coming out.