Michael Sam, who recently became the first openly gay man ever drafted by a National Football League team, received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award on Wednesday night at ESPN’s annual awards ceremony, the ESPYs. Upon being named for the award Sam kissed his boyfriend — a move that sparked a fair amount of outrage at the player on draft day — and went up to give what many are calling the night’s most moving speech.
Sam talked openly about being gay, and black, and not rich, and how those experiences shaped his identity and allowed him to be the player he is today. But the most moving part of the speech is when he talked about his experience with a suicidal young woman.
“The way I see it, my responsibility at this moment in history is to stand up for everybody out there who wants nothing more than tobe themselves openly,” Sam said. “Recently a friend asked me to talk to his sister, a young woman who was considering killing herself, rather than sharing with her loved ones the fact that she was gay. When we spoke she told me she would never consider hurting herself again and that somehow my example had helped her.”
The athlete broke into tears. “It’s amazing to think just doing what we can we can call touch, change, and even save lives.”
Earlier this year, Sam’s team at Missouri received another award — the SEC Sportsmanship Award — for the way the athletes handled Sam’s coming out: by respecting him and his privacy. When Sam’s sexuality became public knowledge in 2013, though, not everyone reacted the same way. Anonymous executives within the NFL privately cast doubts on Sam’s ability to get drafted, saying that “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.”
But some supporters were willing to point out that Sam could be a role model to people like the suicidal girl in his speech. Jason Whitlock, one of ESPN’s sports writers, probably put it best. “Sam’s announcement elevated my perspective on this issue, heightened my awareness of sports’ role in our modern society,” he wrote at the time:
His most important contribution will be his subtle and important impact off the field. He’s going to give gay teenage boys a role model, a hero, a boost to their self-esteem. Sam will further redefine how the rest of us perceive gay men’s masculinity. All of this is critical. Sam can push the conversation about gay boys forward. He can give parents, teachers and coaches a talking point to discuss the importance of tolerance. Bullying of gay children is a vast problem in our schools. It contributes to their high suicide-attempt rate.
That’s why it’s significant that Sam shared his story. The cool kids at Missouri accepted Sam for who he is. The same is going to happen in the NFL
Sam hasn’t yet even entered the regular NFL season, but he’s already making an impact off the field.