February 14, 2014 • CoachingFootballHuddle Up

Michael Sam has Already Proved Critics Wrong

Michael Sam is an All-American football player who dominated one of college’s best conferences last season, leading the Missouri Tigers to a 12-2 record and a Cotton Bowl championship.

He’s also gay.

There will be a number of people who remember him for that last word, despite his glaring achievements and pristine reputation as a teammate. Sam is a courageous pioneer, becoming the most prominent active player to come out, and for that we should praise him. But he’s also a friend. A brother. A son. A man. A football player.

For years, pundits have debated the ramifications of having a gay athlete “infiltrate” the alpha-male culture that is the NFL. Most said it would never work, that it would disrupt the natural order of things. Straight athletes would never welcome a gay teammate, they said.

They were wrong, and Sam is going to prove it. In a way, he already has.

If the critics were correct, Missouri never would have flourished last year. There was no way the team could have rebounded from a five-win season to claim its fourth division title in seven years. No way they could have finished as the fifth-ranked team in the nation. No way the locker room would have had the strength to stand together with a gay man sharing their colors.

They were wrong. Sam came out to his teammates last August, before the Tigers embarked on their remarkable season. Missouri’s success on the field and unity in the locker room shredded any argument that Sam’s presence would be a cancer — a distraction to an organization.

The distraction here comes from the media, and I cringe as I write that. I spent more than five years as a sports journalist at various newspapers, and I found laughable the idea that we were the source of so many problems. But here, in the discussion of Sam’s impact on the game and other gay athletes living in silence, they’re burying the message.

Deadspin carried a wonderful analysis of how Sports Illustrated misdirected the conversation. We’re presented with stories on how Sam’s dad is handling the news, as if the emotional impact on his family is any of our business. We can expect the reaction stories to carry over into the next season, especially as we approach the draft and training camp.

The distraction won’t come from having a gay man in the locker room, but rather answering redundant questions about what it’s like having a gay man in the locker room. And when Sam’s team slips, falls and struggles, the issue will gather momentum. Is Sam the cause?

It will take time, but eventually we’ll learn this is much ado about nothing. The problem is when a close-minded minority of professional athletes say they won’t share a locker room with a gay athlete, it’s characterized improperly. We say the league isn’t ready. We say the NFL won’t accept them. There are nearly 1,700 players in the NFL, and the loud voices of a few don’t represent the whole. Many will welcome Sam, and we’ll learn that soon enough.

Sam will fit in, just like he did in college. He won’t disrupt locker room chemistry, just like he didn’t at Missouri. My hope is that this is an uplifting moment for gay athletes at high schools and colleges across the nation. Some may not have a strong support system, and Sam’s courage may give them greater confidence. 

I also hope this is a lesson for straight athletes. Having a gay boy or girl, man or woman, on your team is no different than teammates you’ve had before. Their sexuality won’t make them score fewer points, record fewer tackles or give any less of an effort. You will one day have gay co-workers and sit next to gay men and women in theaters and restaurants. They’re no different than everyone else, and objecting to that idea is a dangerous way to live.

A number of coaches at some point may have a gay team member — if you haven’t already — and when that time comes I hope you deliver a message of acceptance and unity. Some coaches have come out to their players with positive results, showing we may not be giving enough credit to the mature minds of a young generation.

And if there is any doubt, any pushback that your team cannot succeed, your response is a simple one. Tell them about Michael Sam.  

Photo Marcus Qwertyus, Wikimedia Commons

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