For the first time in my life, I am actually entertaining the idea of watching the NFL Draft. By that I mean following Twitter updates, or scouring the internet for articles about it. I have always viewed the event as a boring transition of highly trained and well-treated college men who move on to become high-paid and even better treated professionals. But Michael Sam has changed my mind.
As a refresher, this past Sunday, the 24 year-old defensive end from Missouri officially came out via interviews with ESPN and the New York Times. In the time between the end of his last college season and the potential start of his professional career, he decided to announce to the media that he is gay. All major news outlets exploded, and for good reason.
If Sam is drafted, he will be the first openly gay football player in the NFL. Dozens of American professional athletes before him have talked openly about their sexual orientation, most recently and notable Jason Collins of the NBA. But these decisions have almost all taken place during the players’ retirement.
Further inquiry into Sam’s history makes for an even more inspiring story. The Texas native has had a tumultuous life, including a brother in prison and a sister who drowned as a small child. His football years in high school did not appear promising—he received two stars as a recruit out of a possible five (“Michael Sam’s dad ‘proud of him’ aunt says he’s ‘making history’” 2.10.14). Nevertheless he played at the DI level for Missouri and was named All-American in the 2013 season as well as the best defensive player in the Southeastern Conference.
I think it is also important to acknowledge Sam’s race. Not only is he positioned to be the first openly gay NFL player, but he is also African-American. It’s no secret that cis-gendered white gay men tend dominate the gay community, or at least its representation in the media’s portrayal of it. Having a visible and currently very famous gay black man playing football may be crucial to promoting cultural, rather than political, acceptance of queer people and especially queer people of color.
Yet despite all of the more promising aspects of Sam’s coming out, several questions and problems remain. The first of which is why it was necessary for Sam to announce his sexuality in the first place. Any article you read about him will not fail to mention the fact that he informed all his Missouri teammates that he was gay last August and that they all were fine with it.
This last fact is supposed to be remarkable, which supports the stereotype that football as a sport and as an institution is homophobic and promotes a very narrow and violent portrayal of masculinity.
I would argue that this is, despite gradual changes, very true. There are incidents like 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver’s hateful remarks about gay players or former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe’s claim that he was cut from the team due to his support for gay rights (“Missouri Michael Sam announces he is gay” 2.10.14). These only provide a small glimpse at the secretive world of professional sports. There is no way to know how many gay or questioning players are still keeping their secret out of fear of being tormented by their teammates. In a profession that values traditional, violent forms of male representation, it can be hard for queer men to assert themselves in the face of this dominant view.
One of the worst aspects of these articles is the question thrown in, usually at the end: will Sam’s decision to come out hurt his chances of being drafted? My immediate response is why should it? Is the personal and private life of an athlete so important that Sam’s sexuality affects his ability to do his job? Only in professional sports do we ask ourselves these questions. Imagine the absurdity of a corporate executive strolling into the office one day to have a meeting in which she announces that she is a lesbian and suddenly everyone her superiors are discussing the possibility of preventing her from getting a promotion. Of course, in actuality her decreased likelihood of moving up the corporate ladder comes from sexism that is rampant in the business world, but that’s a discussion for another time.
It’s clear that the NFL draft will be more carefully observed than usual. Many will be watching to see what Sam does next: will a professional team pick him up in one of the early rounds? Will he sit on the sidelines as he earns tens of thousands if not millions? Will he align himself with gay activist groups? Or will he fail to be picked in the draft and fade into obscurity?
Though I am reluctant to admit it, the actions of American professional sports players matters. They are often used as a sort of cultural barometer, yet often get away with much more than the average citizen ever could. If an African-American gay football player can make it in the NFL, one would hope that members of the queer community in less glamorous jobs could make it, and can thrive.
—Meaghan Hughes is a psychology major.