When Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam put his sexual orientation into the public eye, he seriously complicated his football future. That’s undeniable. Anyone who has ever had the courage to be first at anything will tell you that. He also unburdened his future as a human being with the courage of communicating his truth.
I have no doubt that some NFL teams—perhaps even many NFL teams—will shy away from drafting Sam. There was a time, not so long ago, when teams shied away from drafting black quarterbacks. There was a time, just two generations ago, when teams shied away from drafting black players, period. There was a time when teams wouldn’t draft players who left college early, who had made a mistake or two along the way, who spoke out about politics, who took a stand on civil rights, who dared to communicate their truth.
Sexuality doesn’t define a man or a woman anymore than being left-handed, being caucasian, being from Missouri, or being anything else. We are all the sum of much more than one detail about our lives. So is Michael Sam.
Remember when Manti Te’o came out of Notre Dame after the catfish scandal a year ago? The suspicion that he might be gay combined with the concern of media attention that he would create—and concern that the media attention would become a distraction—definitely moved him lower, and perhaps even off, some teams draft boards. New, different, first, usually has that effect in pro sports because pro sports teams don’t have typical corporate work places. They are unique.
But here’s the thing: Michael Sam isn’t the first gay player entering the NFL. He’s merely the first to talk about it before the draft instead of after his career. That takes enormous courage along with the realization that it will have an impact.
I applaud Michael, not merely for his individual courage but also because he has begun the process of removing one more topic out of our collective discussion. In time, and I have no idea how much time, we won’t talk about gay athletes, just as we no longer talk about black quarterbacks or foreign point guards or female executives or any other designation that reflect a social unease about someone willing to be first.
Think about it. During Super Bowl 48, did anyone refer to Russell Wilson as a “black quarterback?” No. He can thank men like Doug Williams for that. All of America focused on Wilson’s ability to play the position. In time we will do the same thing with gay athletes. But before we can do that, someone had to have the courage to go first, to communicate his truth, and to challenge the rest of us to really think about who we are and what we believe.
Michael Sam did that.
I wish him success on his journey.
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