Despite repeatedly touting their gay-friendly credentials, many in the sports world reacted to Mike Sam’s surprising pre-draft coming out like the clueless parents of a flamboyant child. After Sam’s announcement on Sunday, sources in and around the NFL fell back on an attitude all too familiar to many in the LGBTQ community: We love you, but you just don’t understand what the real world is like. But unlike an overprotective mom or dad telling their scrawny 12-year-old kid that he should’ve kept quiet for his own good, they instead find themselves patronizingly coddling a 6-foot-2, 255-pound All-American defensive linebacker. They say that the real world—or in this case, the locker room—is just too harsh, too painful, and too dangerous for an out gay man.
An anonymous NFL personnel assistant said on Sunday that Sam would “chemically imbalance” the locker room. New York Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas echoed that sentiment, reiterating “in the locker room, it’s different.” It’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell all over again. While many seem willing to accept that there are already dozens of gay players in locker rooms across every American professional league, others do not. A handful of NFLers continue to issue anonymous statements about the impact on team morale and the impending locker-room drama (as if NFL locker rooms weren’t dramatic already). They don’t have a problem with an openly gay player, though. It’s others who might.
For many in the NFL, this is merely the professional equivalent of the completely obtuse parent: perfectly fine with gay people, as long as it isn’t their child. It’s time to stop hiding behind the curtain of protective homophobia. Suggesting that the most challenging struggles of an openly gay life are not worth its triumphs reveals startling ignorance. It not only perpetuates the misery of the closet, but also preserves the homophobic status quo. Any attempt to cover this ignorance with the gauze of protection is a sham. As Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky observed, it is textbook concern trolling.
For all of the awful responses, NFL Players Association President Domonique Foxworth effortlessly dismissed the locker room panic, stating that “some NFL locker rooms need disrupting, to be frank.” The American Prospect’s Scott Lemieux found a great parallel in the 1970s Supreme Court (members who threatened to leave if a woman was appointed weren’t taking their jobs seriously). Career NFL wide receiver Donté Stallworth added to the chorus, saying any team that couldn’t handle the media attention brought upon them by drafting Sam “will suck on the field anyway”
Those “concerns” with Sam’s future NFL career seem to rest on the assumption that he will immediately run to the press or his lawyers when someone uses a gay slur. It’s almost as if Sam had never been gay until Sunday. As if he never faced an anti-gay comment in the locker room or on the field and wasn’t capable of dealing with it privately. The real world, of course, is a very harsh and painful place. Perhaps nobody understands that more than Sam himself. Yesterday, his father readily denounced homosexual relationships during an interview with the New York Times. His mother, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, won’t even return his calls.
While Sam’s place in the public eye is unique, the perils of coming out are not. And while Mike Sam’s own parents have reacted with blatant homophobia, others in the NFL community are sending Sam a signal that the world just isn’t ready for you yet. By that logic, the world isn’t ready for anything. As selfish as it is well-meaning, protective homophobia is alive and well. Mike Sam is capable of taking care of himself. Just as he let go of his concerns about his peers, his parents, and the public, it’s time to drop our concerns for him.