SEC Player-of-the-Year, consensus All-American, and controversial draft prospect. No, this isn’t Tim Tebow. This is Michael Sam, a defensive end from the University of Missouri who, last week, announced that he is gay—a momentous milestone for the macho world of the National Football League. Despite the trepidation surrounding being the first openly gay player committing to the NFL draft, Michael Sam and his supporters should be optimistic that come draft time in May, the only thing being assessed will be Sam’s ability on the field—because he is doing everything he can to make that the case.
But first, cue the lazy, tired narratives propagated by the media and others within the NFL. Sports Illustrated (SI)—who interviewed eight NFL executives and coaches on the issue—ran reports that focused on his draft stock plummeting. According to a personal player assistant interviewed by SI, “Football is [not] ready for an openly gay player,” because it is a “man’s-man game.”
These views reveal little about the reality of the present-day NFL. Former NFL star Jerome Bettis has said that 90 or 95 per cent of NFL players do not care about Sam’s sexual orientation. A former Missouri teammate mentioned that “98 per cent in the NFL could care less about someone being gay, and that it’s the two per cent that will make us look bad.” Furthermore, there has been little talk about how NFL commissioner Roger Goodell—who has a gay brother—has handled the issue. The NFL’s most important man has shown support for Michael Sam and promised further training to help the NFL deal with its first openly gay player.
It goes without saying that the NFL is an imperfect league. Michael Sam and his sexual orientation is the least of the NFL’s problems. Just take a look at former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who is currently in prison on murder charges; or recently retired safety, Darren Sharper, who was arrested last week for felony drug and sexual assault charges.
Beyond this, Sam is doing all he can to put himself in the best position to thrive once he makes it to the NFL. He wisely heeded the advice of Tyrion Lannister: “Never forget who you are; the rest of the world will not. Wear it like armour and it can never be used to hurt you.” Sam’s announcement has given him control over the narrative surrounding the story, giving teams ample time before the draft to address the issue. The NFL hates surprises, and Sam has done his best to control the media firestorm. This will help shift the media focus onto the only thing that matters: his ability to play football. Sam himself has been quiet since his announcement, only breaking the silence to reassert his commitment to training for the 2014 NFL Combine later this month.
The 24-year-old has also highlighted his qualities that appeal to the modern NFL. He is the first member of his family to go to college, and has overcome the death, disappearance, or incarceration of many of his siblings. He showed the ability to lead a locker room during his senior season at Missouri, where the team posted a 12-2 season while being fully aware of his sexual orientation. Sam is demonstrating that he is a dedicated learner who can overcome challenges, which is what forward-thinking NFL teams look for.
Sam is now a modern-day example of courage in the face of adversity. His announcement has flown in the face of the Richie Incognito-esque locker room culture that demonstrates the shortcomings of the league. Following his announcement, the narrative has changed on Sam’s story, as the media is becoming less concerned about his personal life and more concerned about what matters most: his on-field talents. The scouting report now reads that he is a courageous, high-motor pass-rusher, and someone who is clear about his intentions to succeed in the NFL.