No sooner does the SEC MVP come out than the league starts panicking about his place on the field—and, of course, the locker room.
When I went to bed last night, my heart swelled with pride and joy because the day had finally come: A promising and brave young athlete at the dawn of his career named Michael Sam told the New York Times he’s gay. The 24-year-old defensive lineman for the University of Missouri—a first-team all-American, named the defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, and voted MVP by his team after they won the Cotton Bowl—is poised to become the first openly gay player in the NFL. He said he came out to his teammates back in August—they weren’t surprised. Sam said he did so because the rumors were swirling and he wanted to get in front of it, to “make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it. I just want to own my truth.” His teammates were supportive. And this is Missouri we’re talking about, not Los Angeles or San Francisco or anywhere on the East Coast. Even still, it goes without saying that coming out before the draft is not only bold, but also downright daring. It’s never been done. Because no one wants to put himself on the line like that and risk losing the opportunity to go pro.
Which makes it even more exciting than last year’s big gay sports news: NBA center Jason Collins’s kicking open the big-leagues’ closet door. Why? At the risk of sounding ungrateful—and I promise, I’m not, because I think he too was brave—the 34-year-old basketball player’s announcement came as his modest career was winding down, and he was becoming a free agent. Alas, a free agent who had a very good chance of not getting picked up by another team: And, not surprisingly, he didn’t. There was the possibility it was due to his public declaration. But the NBA escaped scrutiny and culpability due to the fact that the 12-year veteran’s career statistics were nothing special (an average of 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds a game), and enlisting him on a team, not cost-effective, because he would command a much higher salary than a younger player due to the league’s collective bargaining pay scale.
This time, we have a young hopeful who has the kind of athletic résumé that teams yearn for. When the story broke in the Times yesterday, reporter John Branch wrote that “several NFL draft forecasters have predicted he’ll be picked in the third round,” in May. Players who are drafted that early, according to Branch, tend to be starters, and rarely are they cut. I immediately recalled my New York magazine colleague Will Leitch’s 2011 essay, “The Last Closet,” in which he predicted that the first openly gay professional athlete would be someone we don’t know yet because “he’s not a pro yet.” Leitch had spoken with Jim Buzinski, the co-founder of Outsports, a chronicler of gay sports issues, who believed that “once the player comes out, he will be so embraced—not just by the sports media, but by the larger culture … that it will become difficult for a player’s team to cut or trade him.” And so far, this bears out: We saw it with Collins, who not only got a cover on Sports Illustrated, but a nonstop rush of tweets, applauding his courage, and print and online features cheering him on. And we’re seeing even more of these cheers for Michael Sam, including a tweet today from Michelle Obama: “You’re an inspiration to all of us @MikeSamFootball. We couldn’t be prouder of your courage both on and off the field.”
That embrace from the media and the larger culture, however, isn’t necessarily acknowledged by the tone-deaf NFL, despite the statement they issued Sunday night that read: “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”
But that was a bunch of bullshit, because later that night, eight anonymous NFL executives and coaches spoke with SI.com, lending voice to the league’s panic, with one scout tarnishing Sam’s stellar record, saying his numbers were inflated. “Of his 11.5 sacks, nine came in three games against … ‘garbage competition’—Vanderbilt, Arkansas State, and Florida.” The executives and coaches were predicting that his announcement would drop his rankings in the draft—and indeed it did. According to NFLDraftScout.com, Sam was the ninth-ranked defensive end on Sunday night, but by Monday morning, he had dropped to the 14th-ranked defensive end; and from the 90th overall player rankings at CBS, to 160th by Monday morning, reports SBNation.com.
A former manager told SI.com, “The potential distraction of his presence—both in the media and the locker room—could prevent him from being selected … 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?’” In the same feature, an NFL player personnel assistant opined that he didn’t think football was ready for an openly gay player. “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable. At this point in time, it’s still a man’s-man game … It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”
I have news for the so-called man’s-men of the NFL: Sam dates guys on the swim team. I’m gonna hazard a guess here and say hulking football players are not his type. Besides, there are plenty of closeted men who’ve shared locker rooms with these man’s-men for decades. And I’m pretty sure they’re not leering at their junk, their hairy asses, their heaving guts. Nope, they’re likely training their eyes on anything but, eager to get in and out of the locker room. I remember when I was closeted as a teenager, I found being in a locker room torturous, terrified that if I made eye contact with anyone, I’d be deemed a lech. Not that I found naked sweaty prancers particularly sexy. I felt about naked people in the locker room the way straight people likely do: nothing. It’s what Seinfeld referred to as “bad naked.”
But this whole homophobic, emasculating notion of it being a man’s-man game: Have you seen Michael Sam? He’s six two, and 260 pounds. He’s a defensive lineman. He’s from Texas, the seventh of eight children, the only member of his family to go to college. Three of his siblings died. Two of his brothers are in prison. He was mostly raised by his mom but had to spend time with another family. And he was courageous enough to tell his teammates he was gay. And then reveal this fact to the world, before draft season. So who is a man’s man? A bunch of whiny guys who are scared to play football and share a locker room with a college ball MVP, who lifted himself up by his bootstraps and sent himself to school and lives by his convictions, because he falls in love with men? Those guys? Yeah, I didn’t think so. The NFL needs to grow a set and make some history by drafting a worthy athlete, who just so happens to be a trailblazer. A “man’s man.”
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