One (Potentially) Giant Leap for the NFL

University of Missouri All-American defensive end Michael Sam is openly gay. Based on his talent, he should be selected in one of the top three rounds in this spring’s NFL Draft. If that happens and if he makes a roster, he will become the NFL’s first openly gay player. Sam came out to his coaches and teammates last summer, and now he’s coming our to the rest of the world because he thought it would be better to control the story than to be outed. This is a major story, and a big step in the right direction, but it’s also been a long time coming.

Professional sports used to be catalysts for social change, but on the issue of gay rights, they have been inhibitors. The NFL is the most inhibiting of America’s four major leagues. NBA veteran The NHL and the game of hockey have been the most progressive and accepting league and sport on the issue of LGBT rights with the You Can Play campaign, but there is still not an openly gay player in professional hockey in North America. In the

Jason Collins broke the ice last spring when he came out, but the 35 year old seven footer has not played in an NBA game since then. Collins was met with overwhelming support from former teammates and from star players around the league, but no team took the chance of signing him this summer. Nevertheless, Collins was a good person to blaze that trail. He has a reputation for being hard working and tough. He was never a superstar, but he commanded respect from players and coaches everywhere he played. Last year, Collins wore the number 98 when he was with the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards, in honor of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was beaten to death in Wyoming in 1998. The day he came out, Collins received phone calls from Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. He said he never intended to be the first openly gay athlete, but he was 34 years old and it was 2013, and he felt it was time to be honest about who he is with the rest of the world.

Michael Sam is more than qualified to play in the NFL. He was a very productive player at Mizzou, and was named the SEC’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. Purely based on talent, he should be playing in the NFL this fall, but the NFL teams might be afraid to draft a gay man, and it wouldn’t be the first time someone’s draft stock has fallen because of this issue. Last year it was Manti Te’o who was suspected of being gay, and dropped to the 4th round after being a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. Rumors have gone around of Aaron Rodgers being gay, and he’s refuted them, but I can’t help but think those rumors had something to do with a franchise quarterback who was projected to be selected first or second, to fall to the 24th in the draft. 23 teams passed on Rodgers. There’s no way that many teams were that confident in the quarterback situation to pass on a talent like that unless they were afraid he would be some sort of distraction to the team. Heck, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe was released for being outspoken in his support of gay marriage in Minnesota. Now he’s suing the team because the special teams coach who made bigoted remarks towards him, and had a hand in his release, is still on the coaching staff even after the Vikings have replaced former head coach Leslie Frazier and undergone an overhaul.

Sam is a better player than Te’o , though. He had 48 tackles including 16 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks in 2013 in college football’s toughest conference. Te’o looked really good until he face Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. While T’eo looked too small and too slow, Sam was ranked among the best defensive players in college football, playing against teams like Alabama, Auburn, LSU, and Texas A&M. If Sam falls in the draft, it will show that the NFL is still a couple decades behind the rest of the world.

Esera Tualo was a guest speaker at my freshman orientation at UMass Dartmouth in 2008. Tualo was a defensive tackle who played nine years in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons, and Carolina Panthers. After he retired from playing, Tualo came out. He has since become an activist, but one thing I remember him saying that stuck with me was that hiding his sexual orientation held him back as a player. He was afraid of getting outed from the exposure he got in national telecasts. This was a guy who played in the Super Bowl, but couldn’t enjoy himself out of fear of not being accepted. Tualo played in the 90s, but the NFL has remained unchanged since then in a lot of ways.

This is a good player who deserves to be playing football at the highest level. I hope whoever drafts him does it because they think he’s the best player on the draft board, and I hope in ten years, gay athletes will be open about who they are and it not be a big deal. This has the potential to be a great story for the NFL, but it also has the chance to be another disappointment for a league that is stuck in the 70s socially.

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