Michael Sam, the University of Missouri defensive end who is projected to be taken on the second day of this year’s NFL Draft, came out as gay in an interview with ESPN and the New York Times on Sunday, a decision that could make him the first openly gay player in the National Football League next fall. Almost immediately, Sam received support from some of the biggest names in football, from his alma mater, and from the NFL itself, though not every reaction to his coming out was positive.
Seattle Seahawks defensive back Malcolm Smith, the reigning Super Bowl MVP:
The University of Missouri, where Sam played his college football, and Mizzou linebacker Kentrell Brothers, Sam’s former teammate:
The NFL, which in addition to stating its support, tweeted a link to its workplace non-discrimination policy:
Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, who estimated that 90 to 95 percent of NFL players would support Sam’s decision:
“For him to make it public that he is gay, the key word is he knows who he is and he’s comfortable with who he is,” Bettis said on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” on Sunday night. “I think that sends the message that it is OK and I think that’s what everyone needs to take from that. It is OK that he is gay and wants to play football in the NFL.”
“I think this is the perfect opportunity for the NFL to now make this a point to communicate to every NFL team now you have to understand, now you have to bring these players to this moment,” Bettis said.
Former NBA center Jason Collins and Major League Soccer’s Robbie Rogers, both of whom came out in 2013:
Not all of the reactions were positive, though the negative takes on Sam’s coming out were few and far between.
Former NFL wide receiver Patrick Crayton, who hasn’t played in the league since 2011 but wishes Sam would keep his sexuality to himself:
Crayton attempted to clarify his initial reaction later. Let me break it down for everyone. “A lot of people are mad because I said there goes the nFL,” Crayton said in a series of tweets. “I say that because now this young man is (going) To get all the wrong attention for his sexual choice and a lot of players and execs will get asked about playing with a gay guy and they are Going to have to lie about how they really feel. This young man will come in with notoriety for announcing his sexual choice more then his Ability to play the game he loves!!!”
Former NFL head coach Herm Edwards, who on SportsCenter compared Sam to players with off-field issues that are “bringing baggage” into the locker room:
“When you go into the draft, look at it this way. Let’s say Michael Sam is not a gay player, but he’s a player that has some issues, off the field issues. The thing you talk about in the organization with the GM and obviously the owner is, can we handle this guy? Can we handle the media that’s going to come along with his situations? He’s bringing baggage into your locker room. So when you think about Michael Sam, all the sudden, can the players handle the media attention they’re going to get when they get the question asked, are you OK with a gay teammate?”
Anonymous NFL executives quoted in Sports Illustrated:
“I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,” said an NFL player personnel assistant. “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.”
“That will break a tie against that player,” the former general manager said. “Every time. Unless he’s Superman. Why? Not that they’re against gay people. It’s more that some players are going to look at you upside down. Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to the Today show. A general manager is going to ask, ‘Why are we going to do that to ourselves?’”
“There are guys in locker rooms that maturity-wise cannot handle it or deal with the thought of that,” the assistant coach said. “There’s nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of the locker room. If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it? It’s going to be a big distraction. That’s the reality. It shouldn’t be, but it will be.”
As I wrote in November, the idea that the NFL isn’t ready for a gay player or that media attention should scare them off doesn’t hold water under the most basic scrutiny. The idea that Sam will disrupt a locker room is hard to believe, given that he’s received quite a bit of support from most players. And if a college locker room is mature enough to deal with this issue (Mizzou went 12–2 and won the SEC West and Cotton Bowl after Sam came out), an NFL locker room should be too.