In case anyone is counting, it has been 22 days, and I am still lamenting over the Patriot’s loss in the AFC Championship game. But today, I read some good news about the National Football League that may take my mind off Tom Brady’s piss poor performance for the meantime. Has anyone heard of Michael Sam? Admittedly until last night, I hadn’t. Michael Sam is one of the NFL’s top prospects for the 2014 Draft, and last night he announced that he is gay, making him the first openly gay athlete seeking a spot on an NFL roster.
Here is a little about Sam. He is a 6’2”, 255 pound Defensive End, small by NLF standards, but agile enough to compensate for his size. He played college ball at Missouri and was a standout, especially in his final season. In 2014 he earned Southern Conference (SEC) Defensive Player of the Year, and led his team to a decisive win over Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl. By all accounts he is expected to be drafted in the early to middle rounds of the 2014 Draft. But will his recent announcement impact his chances in the draft?
I would like to think that teams will not consider his sexual orientation when it is their turn to choose their next defensive superstar, but recent events have lead me to believe otherwise. Take for example Brandon Ayanbadejo (Baltimore Ravens) and Chris Kluwe (Green Bay Packers). Both straight. Both fierce advocates for LGBT equality. Both currently unemployed after their teams apparently cut ties with them over their public LGBT advocacy efforts. There is debate around the reasons Ayanbadejo and Kluwe remain free agents, but the connection seems clear.
Coming out as a gay athlete, especially at the collegiate and professional levels, is still very much taboo. For many college athletes, their scholarships and financial aid are tied to their association with their teams. Coming out increases the chances of the gay athlete being subjected to bullying and harassment by teammates. The stress caused by that harassment could be great enough to affect performance on the field and in the classroom. While professional athletes can be concerned with bullying and harassment, their reasons for coming out are more complex than most college athletes. In professional athletics, individuals live and die by endorsement deals. There are some endorsers who are hesitant about endorsing gay athletes, and the athletes must weigh the potential loss of that endorsement against the mental and emotional freedom of coming out.
Every gay athlete’s reason for remaining closeted is different. My college experience playing basketball at the Naval Academy was nuanced by Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, but my reasons for remaining closeted ran much deeper than the mandates of the military’s policy. For me, my insecurity was rooted fear. I was afraid of perpetuating the stereotype that all female basketball players are lesbians. I wanted desperately to prove people wrong, but alas I was a lesbian basketball player. I was scared that people would think less of me as a person and less of my athletic ability. I was scared that I would be a disappointment to my family. I was scared. Period.
Then I came to realize that the world didn’t have to be so black and white. All female basketball players didn’t have to be lesbians. All female basketball players didn’t have to be straight. I played on teams with some really great basketball players who were lesbians. I played on teams with some really great basketball players who were straight. Bottom line, we were stronger together, and we won together. Who we were off the court didn’t matter.
Coming out to my teammates was very important to me. Like the military, sports teams are built on trust. Twice weekly we would don our uniforms and go into battle on the court. We had to trust one another implicitly, but how could they truly trust me if they didn’t know me. Coming out allowed me to break down that barrier and connect with my teammates in a way that built trust and mutual respect.
I hope coming out has the same impact on Michael Sam. I hope his future team and teammates respect him for his abilities on the football field. I hope the League understands it will be stronger with Michael Sam in it. I hope NFL fans understand that they will see the same level of effort and play that they have come to expect from the players. I hope the players understand that having a gay teammate does not make their team weaker. It actually makes their team stronger.
I have high hopes for Michael Sam and the team that is lucky enough to have him on their roster.