Long before the world knew of Michael Sam, football watchers had wondered what would happen to the country’s most popular sports league with the arrival of its first openly gay player.
The “Gay Jackie Robinson” label floated in and around conversations on the subject, sparking preemptive rejections of the hypothetical analogy from LGBT advocates, die-hard sports fans, and historians alike.
And yet, despite those protestations, the term kept popping up -- first with NBA center Jason Collins, who announced he was gay last year before signing with the Brooklyn Nets (the same NYC borough that Robinson played for) and then with Sam, an NFL-bound SEC Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All American, who positioned himself as another barrier-breaker from the moment he came out.
The NFL was going to get a gay football player. History would be made. And indeed, history it was, when in the seventh and final round of a three-day draft, Sam went to the St. Louis Rams as the 249th overall selection. He was the first openly gay NFL draftee.
But even though Sam has achieved an extraordinary milestone, a number of challenges still remain -- both in terms of defining his own legacy, and in making the NFL a fully inclusive entity, much in the same way Robinson made Major League Baseball a fully integrated one.
First challenge: making the team.
Sam may have sported No. 42 during the NFL’s Scouting Combine, but he hardly played like someone destined to become Rookie of the Year, as Robinson did while wearing that number. The 24-year-old’s disappointing performance prompted many to wonder if he would be drafted at all, let alone earn a spot on the playing roster for whichever team selected him.
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Like Sam, Robinson was a pioneer, though one who inherited a profoundly different set of challenges, under a profoundly different set of circumstances. Robinson proved, in the very beginning of the Civil Rights era, that African-Americans could perform, quite literally, in the big leagues. By contrast, Sam is coming in during the gay rights movement’s heyday, after a handful of ex-NFL players have already come out. Gay people can -- and already have -- played in the big leagues. The question now is whether they can do it while being honest about their sexual orientation at the same time.
Robinson also possessed an exceptional level of talent -- one which made him a six-time All-Star, two-time NL stolen base champion, batting champ, World Series winner, MVP, and a Hall of Famer. This begs the question: does Michael Sam have to be a great football player in order to be a transformative one?
Some say no, that his name will be remembered without so much as making a cleat indentation on the Rams’ football field.
“His drafting was the most important moment for acceptance of gays in sports history,” said Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports.com, in an interview with msnbc last week. “He can certainly continue to build on that legacy, but as a pioneer, it’s already locked up.”
Others say Sam still has work to do.
“He has failed as a football player if he doesn’t make the roster, and then the issue of acceptance becomes irrelevant,” said Dr. Harry Edwards, civil rights activist and San Francisco 49ers consultant, to msnbc. “He has to demonstrate that he can contribute to helping the St. Louis Rams win, whether that is as a special teams player, or whether that is just as a practice squad player who gives them a good look at what they’ll be up against.”
Already, said Edwards, Sam came dangerously close to jeopardizing that goal by flirting with a docuseries to be broadcast on Oprah Winfrey’s television network, OWN, a la Lindsay Lohan. The project, which was postponed last week after igniting widespread criticism, would have been a huge mistake, many argue, because it threatened to generate a media firestorm greater than the value Sam had as a football player.
Forget Jackie Robinson; at that point, the more fitting comparison may be Tim Tebow, another cultural dynamo whose career was killed by what CBS Sports’ Gregg Doyel aptly defined as “noise.”
“However you feel about Michael Sam, even if what you feel about Michael Sam is ‘not another headline about Michael Sam,’ you're paying attention to him,” wrote Doyel. “And for an NFL player, for a marginal NFL player, a whole lot of attention is a whole lot of a bad idea.”
And therein lies Sam’s next challenge: In addition to making the Rams’ 53-man roster, Sam must figure out how to walk the line between being both a team player, and also an historic figure -- an identity which is inherently special, singular, and solitary. For a football player whose legacy hinges on acceptance, those characteristics can spell disaster.
“The key thing is to first make the team in some capacity, and secondly to have that mission that brought everybody together -- winning football games -- as his principle and primary profile,” said Edwards. “Coming out was the easy part; the hard part is going to be coming back in, particularly where the locker room and the football and all the rest comes together. They’re bound around a central mission that brought them together as a football team. Anything else -- political positions, sexuality -- all the rest of that becomes secondary.”
There are then those challenges completely out of Sam’s control, having to do with league policies and old fashioned bigotry. The union may have to revisit its collective bargaining agreement to ensure that Sam and future gay players receive equal treatment under the terms. Same-sex partner benefits, for example, are currently not included.
“If you roll back the clock 15 years, corporate America didn’t offer same-sex partner benefits either, and had to deal with that,” said Todd Solomon, an employee benefits lawyer and author of “Domestic Partner Benefits: An Employer’s Guide,” to msnbc. “It’s now an emerging issue for the NFL.”
Additionally, part of the reason there exists a perception that the pro sports world has lagged behind the rest of American society in embracing LGBT rights is the casualness with which homophobic insults and slurs fly both on the field and in the stands. Paul Guequierre, a former spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, recently recounted an incident to The Guardian in which he had to scold a fan sitting behind him for calling a Chicago Bears player a gay slur.
Undoubtedly, Sam will face that kind of vitriol in the NFL, and already got a taste of it after ESPN aired a celebratory kiss with his boyfriend during the draft. Forty-seven percent of those surveyed in a Huffington Post/YouGov poll said it was “inappropriate” for networks to show the kiss, while only 36% said it was “appropriate.” Meanwhile, Miami Dolphins defensive back Don Jones took to Twitter with his unfiltered reaction -- “OMG” and “Horrible” -- before getting slapped with a fine and suspension. Jones later apologized.
But it’s those kinds of knee-jerk reactions that the NFL will have to figure out how to handle, and that in the meantime, Sam will have to learn how to stomach.
Will he be the “gay Jackie Robinson?” Is he already? For now, he’s just Michael Sam. And to quote Zeigler before the first openly gay NFL draftee had a name, “That should be enough for all of us.”