It made sense that someone like Jason Collins would be the first out gay man in one of the four major North American pro sports leagues. Collins, a 12-year NBA veteran and a Stanford graduate, had already proved his worth in the pros. There was no question that he could play, and that he wasn’t “a disruptive locker room presence,” whatever that euphemism is supposed to mean. He’d been in the league forever, and somehow, miracle of miracles, none of his teams had fallen to pieces on account of his homosexuality.
But Collins hasn’t been able to cut a deal with an NBA team since he came out to Sports Illustrated last April. Maybe that’s because he’s gay, and every franchise is too cowardly to sign him up. Or maybe it’s because he’s an old, defensive-minded center in a league that no longer prizes big men. A little less than a year after his big announcement, it now seems fair to say that Collins is the exact kind of athlete who won’t be the first out gay man in American pro sports. He’s a borderline, so-so player. Risk-averse pro franchises can convince themselves that he’s just not worth the trouble.
Michael Sam, who came out in interviews with the New York Times and ESPN on Sunday, is not a borderline case. The 6-foot-3, 260-pound defensive end from the University of Missouri was the defensive player of the year in the SEC, the best conference in college football. He is on the cusp of the prime of his career, not the end of it.
By declaring that he’s gay before this May’s draft, Sam—projected by many as a third-round pick—is making a brave statement, one that’s also a challenge to the entire NFL. He will not make an announcement about his sexuality after he’s already signed a contract, nor after he retires. Sam wants every pro football decision maker to know he’s gay before he’s even in the league. Sam, then, won’t be breaking down sports’ biggest barrier himself. He’s placed a sledgehammer at the feet of every NFL general manager. Now, who will be brave enough to swing it?
There are 32 NFL teams, and some of them have probably started backing away from that sledgehammer. The Times’ John Branch reports that, prior to Sam’s coming out, various scouts asked his agents whether the player had a girlfriend. Though the NFL declared last year that this sort of discriminatory question is out of bounds, team personnel are either too prejudiced or too dumb to catch on.
It gets worse. In a piece for Sports Illustrated, Thayer Evans and Pete Thamel interviewed eight NFL coaches and executives who anonymously spewed out cretinous, outdated attitudes about sports and homosexuality. “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game,” said a player personnel assistant, oozing so much anonymous testosterone that it leaks off the page. “It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.” A former general manager said that homosexuality “will break a tie against that player” in the draft room. “Every time. Unless he's Superman. Why? Not that they're against gay people. It’s more that some players are going to look at you upside down. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to the Today Show. A general manager is going to ask, ‘Why are we going to do that to ourselves?’ ”
The cultural references here—Tom, Dick, and Harry; Good Housekeeping—are telling. If I had to guess, this former general manager is an older gentleman, a fellow who came of age when gay men had no choice but to hide in the shadows (or perhaps behind a dusty back issue of Good Housekeeping). Now, it’s a different world, both away from the gridiron and inside football locker rooms. Just as support of gay marriage is skyrocketing among young people, so will younger athletes come to accept that there are gay men playing beside them. The reluctant, tut-tutting former general managers will soon be outnumbered.
That’s not to say it will be easy for Michael Sam. Just last week, as Branch notes, linebacker Jonathan Vilma said he wouldn’t want to play with a gay man. The 49ers’ Chris Culliver said the same thing, less politely—“No, we don't got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do”—last January.
Vilma and Culliver have surely already played with gay teammates—and let me offer congratulations to the brave souls who’ve had to stomach lining up alongside those bigots. Moreso, for all those who think a player like Michael Sam could poison a football team, consider what happened at Missouri this season. According to Branch’s Times story, Sam came out to his teammates and coaches before the season. If Sam was hurting the Tigers’ on-field or off-field chemistry, it was hard to see it in the team’s results: Missouri went 12-2 and finished fifth in the polls, and Sam was named a first-team All-American.
But reading between the lines of the Times piece, you get the sense that it wasn’t an absolutely smooth ride. Branch writes that “on a team with about 100 players, of different ages, backgrounds and beliefs, there were varying levels of discomfort.” But the team got through it. “I never had a problem with my teammates,” Sam said. “Some of my coaches were worried, but there was never an issue.”
Where will Michael Sam end up? In an ESPN the Magazine story this August, Alyssa Roenigk explained that the Seattle Seahawks were embracing the bizarre idea that men in helmets should be treated as individuals rather than objects, and that happy players are productive players. The Patriots, too, are known for seizing undervalued assets in the draft, players that other teams unfairly underrate. New England owner Robert Kraft, too, has said he’d be happy to have a gay player on his team.
Whether it’s Seattle, New England, or somebody else , whoever drafts Sam will get a lot of attention. They’ll also get a very good football player, one who’ll walk into an environment where he knows upper management has his back. Unlike all those pro athletes who were confined to the closet until after their careers were over, Sam will join the NFL on his own terms. There will be no whispers, no innuendo, just an enormous, extremely fast athlete who wants to make a living playing the game he loves. That sounds like a guy who’d fit in perfectly in the NFL.