“I may be the first,” Michael Sam told the New York Times, “but I won’t be the last.” The top-ranked NFL prospect from the University of Missouri became the first athlete to come out as gay before his NFL draft — and will be the first openly-gay athlete in the league once he signs with a team. And that will be inevitable, given his All-American status:
Just how big of a deal is this? It’s long been speculated that a number of athletes in the NFL, NBA, and major-league baseball are gay, but closeted — fearful of public disapproval and harassment by teammates. The Times frames the story in that direction:
But the N.F.L. presents the potential for unusual challenges. In the past year or so, it has been embroiled in controversies ranging from antigay statements from players to reports that scouts asked at least one prospective player if he liked girls. Recently, Chris Kluwe, a punter, said that he was subject to homophobic language from coaches and pushed out of a job with the Minnesota Vikings because he vocally supported same-sex marriage laws. And last week, Jonathan Vilma, a New Orleans Saints linebacker, said in an interview with NFL Network that he did not want a gay teammate.
“I think he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted,” said Mr. Vilma, a 10-year league veteran.
In a statement Sunday night, the league said: “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the N.F.L. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”
It’s worth noting that the Vikings vehemently challenge Kluwe’s version of events, too. And even if there is a residual “macho” mindset against gay athletes in the league, it’s not going to last for long. Americans have been rapidly more tolerant of gay and lesbian participants in the arts, in politics, and in other sports, notably women’s professional sports for decades now. For most people, the addition of professional men’s sports to that cultural shift will be a non-story. The NFL is not immune to the forces of the larger culture, after all.
If NFL fans want to get angry over something, how about focusing on how the league, its owners, and yes its players too hold cities for ransom to shake down taxpayers to fund their playgrounds? I’m a lot more concerned with that than with the private decisions made by consenting adults in their companionship off the field.
Update: According to Conn Carroll (and some commenters), Sam is a mid-level prospect:
— Conn Carroll (@conncarroll) February 10, 2014
Duly noted, and I’ve changed the headline. But a senior who’s a first-team All-American coming off a big year is still going to be a significant prospect.