“I’m a football player, and I’m gay.” With those words, Michael Sam, an All-American defensive end from the University of Missouri, demonstrated courage far beyond that demanded on the football field. And America may, for the first time, witness an openly gay man playing professional football.
“I just want to own my own truth,” said Sam, fully aware of what he risked by standing up. There are no openly gay athletes in the NFL, NBA, NHL or major league baseball.
That’s not to say there are no gay professional athletes. There have always been gays in professional sports, just as there have been in all professions — lawyers, doctors, bricklayers and steelworkers. Some came out of the closet after they retired. Many gays were known, or widely suspected, by teammates but not admitted publicly. When Jerry Smith, a tight end for the Washington Redskins, died of AIDS, some of his teammates served as pallbearers. It was rumored that he was gay when he was playing. His teammates rallied to him, partly because he could play.
Sam has put his career of choice at risk. He’s a 6-foot-2, 260-pound menace on the football field. He was the Associated Press Player of the Year in the Southeast Conference, considered the elite football conference. He was expected to be drafted high in the early rounds of the draft before the announcement. His announcement will now put the NFL and its owners to the test.
As a path-breaker, Sam will face obstacles. Last week, Jonathan Vilma, a star linebacker for the New Orleans Saints, said openly that he wouldn’t want a gay teammate. The NFL locker room is already known as notoriously tough on rookies. Sam will no doubt face an even harsher introduction.
When African Americans broke into segregated institutions, they knew that they would have to perform better and act better to compete. For Sam to survive in the NFL, he’ll no doubt have to perform better and play better than other rookies.
But he’s been through this before. At the beginning of this season, he told his teammates at Mizzou that he was gay. Many already knew or suspected. The team worked through the problems. Sam dominated on the field. And at the end of the season, they voted him their most valuable player.
Sam is part of a movement for equality that is sweeping all before it. In 2000, Republicans used same-sex marriage as a wedge issue to help win elections. Now, Americans attitudes have been transformed. Same-sex marriage laws have been passed in several states with more to come. On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder issued orders to the Justice Department to recognize the federal rights of legally married same sex couples no matter where they are living. A millennial generation is growing up that scorns those who would discriminate on the basis of whom one chooses to love. Even Pope Francis has asked, “Who am I to judge?” arguing that people “should not be marginalized” because of their sexual orientation and “must be integrated into society.”
But this kind of change doesn’t come on its own. It takes courageous citizens of conscience to stand up. It requires organizing, marching and protests. Lives and careers are put at risk. The most courageous often pay the highest price, as exemplified by Dr. Martin Luther King.
The courage of Michael Sam should be saluted. But we should also stand with him. The NFL, its owners, its coaches and players should understand that it is time to step up. The football field is a level playing field. All play by the same set of rules. There is no place for exclusion or discrimination in professional athletics. Michael Sam asks only to be graded by his performance on the field. And if history is any guide, if he is given a fair shot, he will do just fine.