IN OUR light-speed sports media environment, we were all given roughly one hour. We had one hour to feel both exhilarated and optimistic about the future of Michael Sam. Here he was: a first-team All-American football player from Missouri and a co-defensive player of the year in the toughest college football conference of them all, the SEC. And now two months before the NFL draft, he was telling the world, on his own terms, that he was gay. As Mr. Sam put it, “I want to own my own truth.”
Even better, his Missouri Tiger teammates had known his “truth” since last August. Michael Sam had come out to them in a team trust exercise, where every player was asked to share something personal. The Tigers not only supported him, they protected him, keeping his secret until he was ready to come out to the world. As he said to John Branch of The New York Times:
Once I became official to my teammates, I knew who I was. I knew that I was gay. And I knew that I was Michael Sam, who’s a Mizzou football player who happens to be gay. I was so proud of myself and I just didn’t care who knew. If someone on the street would have asked me, “Hey, Mike, I heard you were gay. Is that true?” I would have said yes.
A couple of Sam’s straight football buddies even hit the gay clubs with him in the lead up to last month’s Cotton Bowl. One joined him at a pride march and, when the season ended, his teammates voted him most valuable player of the overachieving 12-2 Tigers.
This narrative about the locker room is in many ways more important than the coming out itself. What sports general managers have always said in the past, whether they were speaking in the abstract or talking anonymously about unsigned out-and-proud NBA player Jason Collins, is that “the locker room” would not be ready for a gay teammate. No matter how many athletes have come out as allies, no matter how many polls show overwhelming majorities of pro athletes willing to have gay teammates, this is what was always thrown in the faces of fans: the “locker room” isn’t ready. And here was a living, breathing example of an SEC locker room that did not only survive having a gay teammate but thrived.
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WHAT A story. For one hour, that song from The Lego Movie, "Everything is Awesome," seemed to be playing behind every tweet, every Facebook post and every direct message.
I exchanged e-mails with Cyd Ziegler and Jim Buzinski, from OutSports, two of the journalists who not only broke this story but helped strategize the timing of Michael Sam’s coming out. They have no illusions that the NFL is somehow a rainbow utopia waiting to happen, but as Cyd said, “I don’t think it will affect his draft stock much at all. It’s impossible to predict where anyone will be drafted, but the NFL is about winning. When it makes sense to draft someone of Michael’s skill, he’ll get taken off the board. I just hope it’s the Patriots so I can cheer for him every game.” Yes, everything was awesome.
Then came this article by Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated. Thamel collected a series of reactions from anonymous NFL executives about the news of Michael Sam’s coming out, and the operative word here is “reaction.” They belched a collection of comments that would not have sounded out of place in the 1940s, when the sports bosses lectured Branch Rickey about how “the Negro” would make a locker room—and yes, the showers—unbearable.
One NFL executive said, “I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet. In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.” (My emphasis.) …