Earlier this month, University of Missouri defensive end and NFL draft prospect Michael Sam made history by publicly announcing he is gay. Sam is the first athlete to come out as gay prior to starting a career in the NFL.
Sam boasts an impressive set of statistics. He stands at 6 feet 2 inches tall, he weighs 260 pounds, and in 2013 he recorded 48 tackles, 11 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. Named the Southeastern Conference’s co-defensive player of the year and an All-American, Sam has few critics who doubt his abilities as an athlete.
Sam’s public announcement that he was gay came on Sunday, Feb. 9; however, many of his teammates at MU already knew. Considering the timing of the news just before the NFL draft, he is in a position to make history as the first professional football player who is openly gay.
Michael Sam shatters cultural stereotypes that gay men are effeminate. As a large and aggressive athlete — who happens to be gay — Sam takes notions of masculinity and sexual identity and flips them on their head. This is especially important considering he plays a sport that embraces an overtly masculine identity and because he will be entering a league in which recent news surrounding homophobia among certain organizations has sparked controversy.
Although national perceptions of homosexuality have been challenged in recent years, the conversation has not entered the arena of professional sports. For many years, the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB have gone without any publicly gay athletes. It begs the question, why did Michael Sam choose to come out now?
“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it … I just want to own my truth,” Sam said recently in an interview with the New York Times.
Sam’s decision was made in an attempt to get ahead of any rumors that might have been circulating about him. When the news first broke, many NFL players, coaches and representatives were quick to comment about the possibility of having a gay player or teammate. Some welcomed the addition of a gay teammate; others voiced concerns over his acceptance. Overall, opinions and responses were mixed.
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” the NFL said in an official statement. “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.”
For the most part, the media have reported on responses from within the NFL and a few coaches in college sports. Some NW student-athletes had their own reactions to the story.
Volleyball player Kaitlin Floerchinger said that the decision by Sam seemed extremely brave.
“(Coming out) must have been difficult for him to do, especially in such a ‘masculine’ sport,” Floerchinger said.
Ben Loftis, a member of the Red Raider football team, said that he was not surprised at the news.
Baseball player Isaac Horigan also said that it was not shocking but simply something that was bound to happen eventually.
Even though the news that a professional football player is gay does not shock many people, this story brings up many never-before-discussed ideas. This story is not, and probably will not remain, isolated to the NFL. In the future, it seems likely that an increasing number of gay and lesbian athletes at the high school, collegiate and professional levels will make the same decision to publicly announce their sexual orientations.
What does it look like for the future of sports — especially one strongly associated with masculinity such as football — to accept openly gay athletes?
“I think that it’s stupid that a sexual orientation can determine how masculine or feminine a person is,” Floerchinger said. “There’s more to an individual than their sexual orientation.”
The openness of athletes such as Michael Sam provides an opportunity for discussions on gender, sexual orientation and identity. From these discussions we can gain an understanding of how complex these issues are and discuss whether or not individuals can be wholly defined by a trait such as gender or sexual orientation.
Team sports bring together a group of individuals with different beliefs, backgrounds and personalities and forces them to spend time together. The relationships built between teammates can help them overcome a number of differences. Former NW soccer player and current women’s soccer coach Ben Karnish said that, for any sport, team dynamics can be challenging and complicated.
“There are so many conflicts you could have with teammates if you really wanted to,” Karnish said. “We all have personal differences, but when you get out there and get to play, there are 11 people playing for one goal.”
“It’s really hard to get 120 football guys to see eye-to-eye,” Loftis said.
Karnish and Loftis are not alone in their opinion that in any team setting with a large group of people there are going to be mixed opinions, views and convictions. Trying to predict the way that individuals will react is nearly impossible, and trying to get them to agree would prove equally challenging.
Michael Sam’s position as the only “outed” gay athlete in professional football will not last for long. It also might not be long before a similar situation hits closer to home.