A breakthrough moment awaits NFL

Missouri v Southeastern Louisiana
Missouri linebacker Michael Sam (52) is congratulated by teammate Matt Hoch after returning a fumble seven yards for a touchdown in first quarter action…
Photo by Chris Lee
By any fair standard, the University of Missouri’s Michael Sam is an exceptional football player. He led his college team to one of its best seasons ever and was named the team MVP by his teammates. Sam was a first-team all-American and was named the defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, an NCAA powerhouse.
 
The question isn’t whether Michael Sam would soon begin his career in the NFL, but how high he’ll be drafted.
 
Yesterday, however, Sam acknowledged in a New York Times interview that he’s gay – he’d be the first openly gay athlete to ever play pro football – and Sports Illustrated talked to eight NFL executives and coaches who responded to the news with pause.
In blunt terms, they project a significant drop in Sam’s draft stock, a publicity circus and an NFL locker room culture not prepared to deal with an openly gay player…. While none of the executives overtly condemned Sam’s decision, their opinions illuminated an NFL culture in which an openly gay player – from the draft room to the locker room – faces long odds and a lonely path. […]
 
“I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,” said an NFL player personnel assistant. “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.”
First, reactions like those offer a timely reminder that American public life has shown extraordinary strides in recent years when it comes to equality, civil rights, and basic human decency, but we’re still not yet where we need to be.
 
Second, the notion that football isn’t yet ready for an openly gay player seems quite ridiculous given the example set by … Michael Sam.
 
Look, this isn’t complicated. Sam came out to his teammates last year. They didn’t care. On the contrary, his talent and leadership skills led them to make Sam their team leader.
 
Are we to believe student athletes can embrace a gay teammate, but professional players aren’t up to the task?
 
For what it’s worth, the prospect of a sports breakthrough is real. As of right now, there are no openly gay athletes in any of the four major U.S. sports leagues: NFL, NBA, NHL, and major-league baseball. Basketball player Jason Collins came out last spring, but it was after his season had ended and he hasn’t been signed to another team.
 

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A breakthrough moment awaits NFL