If the recent Superbowl wasn’t enough to convince anyone that American football stands as the last bastion of the American dude’s inalienable right to dude-initude, the vortex of “concern” about Michael Sam — an All-American defensive lineman and the Associated Press’ defensive player of the year — proves it.
Sam, sitting down with the New York Times on Sunday, went on the record with something that his teammates had been told before the beginning of the season — that he was gay. With that, Sam set himself up to be the first active player in any of the Big Three American professional sports — the MLB, the NFL, and the NBA — to come out. While NBA center Jason Collins made headlines in 2013 for doing the same, he was a free agent well into his career at age 34 and he has actually not played a game since his announcement.
For Michael Sam — who’s draft stock has been all over the map but has always been a surefire draft pick (not a given in the NFL), a player at the outset of his professional career — he’s entering uncharted waters. With players and teams butting heads over how much support should be given to same-sex anything, and the very real possibility that Sam just cut his future earnings in half (if not more), anyone would be forgiven for letting their curiosity over the response overtake the fact that history was being made.
After all, this is a sport that actively courts the stereotypically masculine male fantasy with approximately a million-and-a-half light beer and big truck commercials every season, repositioning the idea of concussion safety as a war on the game itself. If there’s any sports culture so ready to put its foot in its mouth, it’s football. With that in mind, here’s five commentators, players, and NFL types who actually set a positive example.
Drew Magary, Author & Columnist
If you recognize the name Drew Magary from anywhere, it’s probably from the Duck Dynasty fiasco. Magary, who writes for GQ occasionally and regularly for Gawker’s Sports blog Deadspin, was the guy who wrote the story that got Phil Robertson, patriarch of the A&E cash cow, in hot water for his antiquated statements on gay rights. If you recognize the name Drew Magary from Deadspin, it’s probably from his football writing. Drew handles Deadspin’s NFL column in which he makes fun of other columnists, invites readers to send in their own stories about feces and/or wild animals, and embeds YouTube links to songs that are usually both loud and rocking. Needless to say, Magary’s NFL stuff is essential reading, and his correspondence is always great, too.
That his column on Sam is pitch perfect is almost rote at this point. He is, after all, the same dude (a different one than the NFL dudes, who lean more towards being bros) who once described football, his self-identified favorite sport, as “some buzzcut dad from 1956 who sits over in the corner reading the paper and doesn’t say a word to you unless you decide to grow a ponytail one day.” There aren’t many better ways to describe the league in the year 2014.
While the entire column is well worth the read, as well as possibly being NSFW due to the language, Magary’s best insight consists of two sentences that nail many NFL personnel, who’ve openly (albeit anonymously) predicted a universal devaluing of Sam’s draft stock after his announcement. In Drew’s words, “No team wants to be the first with a gay player. They all want to be second.”
Deion Sanders, Former NFL Player
If the law of averages is anything to go by, there has probably been a gay athlete in each of the major professional sports. If the code of locker-room solidarity is anything to go by, many former and current players have had gay teammates. When Jason Collins came out last April, he brought up three degrees of Jason Collins, an NBA twist on the Kevin Bacon staple. Therefore, it stands to reason that out of the hundreds of former professional athletes, many of them having knowingly had gay teammates. They just haven’t told anyone involved in covering those sports. You could call this a silly formality.
So, leave it to Deion Sanders to address it. After all, this guy has had a successful career in the NFL and Major League Baseball. By the numbers, he’s had more teammates in highest-level sports than almost any other athlete young enough to operate their own social media. So Sanders’ response is a little history, a lot of support, and a hashtag. #GoodJobDeion
Michael Sam isn’t the 1st gay player in the NFL although he is the 1st 2 come out. #realtalk Let’s show him love like a family member. Truth
— DeionSanders (@DeionSanders) February 10, 2014
Wade Davis, Former NFL Player
— Wade Davis II (@Wade_Davis28) February 10, 2014
If you wanted to ask someone just how much ground has been covered since 2003 when it comes to gay rights and professional sports, you could do a lot worse than asking Wade Davis. One-time captain of the football team at Weber State, Davis went on to the NFL before retiring early due to injury. Years later, he came out, and now serves as the executive director for the You Can Play initiative, which strives to keep homophobia from athletics at every level.
Davis is also an occasional contributor to Sports Illustrated’s Monday Morning Quarterback, and his feature about meeting with Michael Sam after the Times broke the story is interesting, thoughtful, and nuanced — which shouldn’t be a surprise, really. It should serve as hope that Davis spends more time writing.
In his own words, from the end of his MMQB article: “This is a black man, from the rural south, who is set to become the first openly gay player in the NFL. Paired with the NBA’s Jason Collins, his presence has the potential to reframe all the misconceptions about masculinity in athletics, about LGBT tolerance among African-Americans, and about homophobia in rural areas. I wondered if he truly grasped the significance of this moment that would change lives for gay men and women in sports going forward. Then I decided that it doesn’t really matter if he does. He’s here to play football.”
Michael Sam’s Mizzou Teammates
Days ago, in an apparent coincidence, NFL Gameday ran a video about the culture of an NFL locker room. Perhaps not so surprisingly, it doesn’t sound all that different from any other locker room — according to Ike Taylor, a defensive back for the Pittsburg Steelers, “we talk about you, your girlfriend, your wife, [and] your kids,” while Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly grins as he describes the language as decidedly not mom-friendly.
Nothing in the video is particularly shocking, unless you’ve never heard of bullying in athletics. The last minute, though, discusses the difficulties a locker room would have if there was an openly gay player on the team. While not all players voice concern — Taylor in particular comes across as particularly no nonsense in his appraisal that, “Regardless, he’s a teammate of mine.” The majority of men interviewed seem skittish even broaching the topic. Possibly because Andrea Kremer, the NFL Network’s Chief Correspondent for Player Safety and Health Issues, is intimidating.
Regardless, the response from Sam’s Mizzou teammates was universally supportive. When Sam came out to the team during preseason training camp, “Their reaction was like, ‘Michael Sam finally told us.’ Just to see their reaction was awesome. They supported me from day one.” There was no request for secrecy on Sam’s side, and despite the open acknowledgement of something that petrifies an NFL locker room, the Mizzou Tigers went 12-2 with an openly gay teammate. We just didn’t know about it.
Is this a cop out? Maybe. This time last year, the NFL was investigating teams on behalf of Nick Kasa, then a University of Colorado player and now a member of the Oakland Raiders. Teams allegedly approached Kasa and asked him, “‘Do you have a girlfriend? Are you married? Do you like girls?’ Those kind of things, and it was kind of weird,” he told CNN. “But like they would ask you with a straight face, and it’s a pretty weird experience altogether.” No teams were ever publicly reprimanded for this behavior, although the NFL explicitly prohibits it.
In the face of the possibility that teams violated the league’s collective bargaining agreement by attempting to determine whether Sam was gay, the same way they had with Kasa and San Diego Chargers linebacker Manti Te’o — he of hoax girlfriend fame — the league released a statement in support of Michael Sam. Even if it is equal halves boilerplate and cliché, it’s important, essential halves of boilerplate and cliche.
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” NFL senior vice president of communications Greg Aiello said in the statement. “Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”