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Between the Lines: New Day in the NFL

Michael Sam and the reality of today’s gay athletes

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

This weekend’s NFL Scouting Combine, in which 300 top draft prospects will be evaluated by coaches and scouts, will have its first high-profile openly gay attendee in University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who turned the page on a new chapter in NFL history last week by announcing that he is gay. Last season’s SEC (Southeastern Conference) co-defensive player of the year, Sam is expected to be a third- to seventh-round pick in this year’s NFL draft in May.

Some are suggesting that Sam’s decision to come out publicly at this time (he told his Missouri teammates last August) is unnecessarily politicizing the issue. But announcing that he is gay before both the draft and the Combine is not only courageous on Sam’s part; it is honorable, too.

“I think that it could be seen as positive with teams that he came out and was open about his sexuality,” Sam’s agent Joe Barkett suggested, “instead of coming out after the draft and potentially having a team claim that he was dishonest.”

Predictably, several NFL insiders quoted by Sports Illustrated said the league isn’t ready for an openly gay player, that it would cause a “chemical imbalance” in the locker room, and that football is “still a man’s-man game,” whatever that means. Predictably, too, all those opinions came from unnamed sources, the majority of them second-tier coaches and personnel.

Conversely, the players, coaches and owners who have gone on the record—from New York Giants owners Steve Tisch and John Mara to Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy and Denver Broncos executive vice president John Elway—have been supportive of Sam.

As have the top brass with the New England Patriots. As Patriots owner Robert Kraft told Boston Herald sports reporter Steve Buckley (who came out himself just a few years ago), “... anyone who can come in here and help us win, I personally don’t care what their ethnic background is, their racial background, the gender preference. If … they’re about team first, then I’m happy to have him here.”

But words are one thing, actions another. Last year former Boston Celtic Jason Collins (who wore no. 98 in memorial to the 1998 Matthew Shepard murder) announced he was gay after his season ended with the Washington Wizards. Technically, he is the first active male athlete in one of the four major American sports (baseball, football, basketball, hockey) to come out, but the league veteran of more than 10 years has yet to be signed by a team this season.

Likewise, last year’s NFL Combine featured a bizarre line of questioning regarding the sexual orientation of its rookie prospects, reported NPR’s Only A Game. “They ask you like, ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ ‘Are you married?’ ‘Do you like girls?’” Nick Kasa told ESPN Radio in Denver. “But they would ask you with a straight face, and it’s a pretty weird experience altogether.”

By coming out before the draft and before the Combine, Sam has to some extent deflected the focus from himself to the reactions of the rest of us—coaches, front office personnel, other players, and millions of fans who devoutly follow the game. Sam has come out. It’s up to the rest of us to determine the consequences.•

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