When Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out as gay last week, the news sent a shockwave through the football world. Although Sam is not a professional player yet, as he prepares for the National Football League combine and his potential draft into the league, he would become the first openly gay active player in the NFL’s long history. Now this isn’t to say that there have never been gay players before. However, none made the decision to come out while playing.
Sam’s announcement last week was mostly met with positive feedback, whether it was tweets of support from current NFL players or the news that his Missouri teammates knew about Sam’s sexual orientation this entire past season and responded with acceptance. But some NFL executives, who remained anonymous, said Sam’s coming out could potentially lower his draft stock, despite not affecting his ability.
Not withstanding a few negative reactions last week, there is a positive trend moving forward. In an anonymous survey on ESPN’s ”NFL Nation,” 51 current players were asked questions about their opinions of sexual orientation in the NFL. While there wasn’t complete acceptance (86 percent, or 44 of the 51 polled, said it is false that a player’s sexual orientation matters to them), it seems that Sam, assuming he’s drafted, would be welcomed into an NFL locker room.
This past year, Sam was given the Southeastern Conference’s defensive player of the year award. His 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles led the conference in both categories, and he dominated opposing tackles on the edge all season. After his announcement, Sam was projected to be a third- to fifth-round draft pick despite his terrific senior season.
Though the last seven recipients of SEC’s defensive player of the year award have been drafted in the first round, the downside is that Sam may not have a definite role on an NFL defense — he may be too slow at linebacker and too small at defensive end.
Needless to say, even if Sam’s physical attributes and style of play are more suited for college football, there’s no doubt that he is capable of playing at the next level. It will just be a matter of who will give him that chance. While 44 players said a player’s sexual orientation wouldn’t matter to them — showing a seemingly new level of acceptance in the NFL — it seems that the traditional locker room culture might be difficult to change.
For example, 32 of the 51 players surveyed said that “teammates or coaches used homophobic slurs this past season.” And 21 players answered false to the statement, “An openly gay player would feel comfortable in an NFL locker room.” This shows that despite the majority acceptance in ESPN’s anonymous poll, there will still be some reluctance by Sam’s future teammates. If teams have uncertainty in drafting Sam because of his coming out, it seems that stems from the fear of disrupting locker room chemistry and how an out player will affect the team.
In the report, ESPN quoted a current NFL player who said: “Whoever takes (Sam) should have an open talk at the beginning of camp, where everybody can ask what he’s comfortable with, what offends him, what boundaries there should be. When it comes to race, people already know the boundaries, to a certain extent. But I don’t think football players are overly familiar with what can and can’t be said around a gay person.”
Unawareness, not his play, will likely be Sam’s biggest obstacle. It’s not that the players are against the idea, but that they don’t yet know how to approach a situation like this — likely because there has rarely, if ever, been a similar situation in an NFL locker room.
The biggest obstacle for Sam, even according to the survey, which showed most NFL players would be accepting of a gay player in their team’s locker room, will be the players who are not. New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said of Sam’s situation in an interview, “I think that he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted.”
As the NFL combine approaches, Sam’s story won’t go away. How he performs could further determine his spot in the draft, and his interviews with teams should give them a glimpse into exactly what kind of player and person he is — on the field. If the ESPN survey is any indication, teams will welcome Sam, because at the end of the day, he was the best defensive player in the most dominant conference this season.