A New Kind of Fierce

Image from abcnews.go.com

Image from abcnews.go.com

For a good amount of his time at the University of Missouri, the word “fierce” could be used to describe Michael Sam’s competitiveness and play on the field, most notably during a senior season that just saw him become Mizzou’s first unanimous All-American player in over 50 years. Anyone even remotely familiar with Mizzou football history knows how big a feat that was in and of itself. But on Sunday, February 9, 2014, Sam found a way to put perhaps a bigger exclamation point on a great season than his Cotton Bowl-clinching sack for Mizzou in January: he came out of the closet publicly, becoming the first openly gay NFL draft prospect, and should he be drafted as expected, the first openly gay active NFL player. There have been quite a few athletes to come out of the closet in recent years – John Amaechi and Jason Collins of the NBA immediately come to mind – but thus far, they have pretty much been either retired or athletes in sports with nowhere near the visibility of the NFL. Sam would be the first active homosexual player in one of the major sports.

The significance of that last line cannot possibly be overstated. Pro football is, by all accounts, a gladiatorial sport where hegemonic ideas of masculinity reign supreme. It’s a fraternity, with all of the positive and negative connotations that entails. Michael Sam is, by all accounts, a hard working, dedicated football player who may not be the most athletically gifted guy on the field, but he’s made a career out of playing and driving harder than his “athletic superiors,” and 10 times out of 9, that’s exactly the type of player that can help a team win consistently. Sam coming out of the closet means that there will potentially be a stigma attached to him forever; a disqualifier that might label him as a “good gay football player,” when in reality, Michael Sam is a “good football player who just HAPPENS to be gay.” Nothing more, nothing less.

While the reaction to Sam’s announcement has by and large has been overwhelmingly positive – a testament to how far we’ve come as a society just in the last decade or so – there are still those who denigrate this as either a cheap ploy for ratings or attention. Even worse, homosexuality is and will be, at best, a polarizing topic for a long time, and there are surely many NFL players who won’t want an openly gay player on their team because they’re concerned about being a target or prey to wandering eyes and desires. As if homosexuality is some sort of predatory disease. As if women are the only ones that should be objectified. This coming from a league that has made stars out of guys accused and/or convicted of a litany of major crimes, including but not limited to: obstruction of justice in a murder case, vehicular manslaughter, and sexual assault. But hey, at least those guys aren’t sexually attracted to other men, right? To call this line of reasoning ridiculous and asinine would be selling it woefully short.

Look, we’ve come a long way since the homophobia that many of us grew up in – I literally cringe when I hear someone who still uses the embarrassingly archaic word “faggot” as a pejorative towards someone they consider less manly – but perhaps no sport values masculinity and toughness like pro football does. There’s certainly no question that being tough is a big part of football, but the two concepts have become synonymous unjustly. Being “tough” doesn’t necessitate valuing the ideals of “manly” men – female sexual conquests being chief among them. His NFL future is only the secondary story here, but if Michael Sam becomes a successful pro football player, it’ll get us THAT much closer to a day when no one is afraid to be who they are and love who they love, regardless of the arena they’re entering. THAT’S what’s at stake here.

Now, is it convenient for Michael Sam to announce his sexual orientation right before he hopes to hear his name called in the NFL Draft? Maybe. There’s no question that at the very least, the timing of Sam’s proclamation will cause NFL front offices to talk about him, perhaps even more than they would have even after his fantastic senior season. That’s just a given, and there are people everywhere who find the timing to be just a little too “convenient.” I’ve spent the better part of the last decade in Columbia, Missouri where the Missouri Tigers call home, including the entire duration of Mr. Sam’s career. I don’t know him personally, so obviously, I can not speak to his true motivations. But regardless of whether it was done for publicity or not, tantamount to saying that welfare is bad simply because of the people who take advantage of it, reducing something like this it to something so trivial and negative is just too simplistic. It misses the entire point, which is that Michael Sam represents a new, exciting hope for the entire LGBQT community specifically BECAUSE he announced it publicly when he did while trying to break into such a “manly” sport. NFL general managers and front offices can talk the talk about being accepting of all cultures and lifestyles all they want, but now, Michael Sam has publicly dared them to walk the walk. There are 32 NFL teams, 31 of which are for sure not going to able proudly say they employ Michael Sam after the draft in April, and Sam isn’t a surefire elite NFL prospect, but most of that hardly matters. There’s a chance that he might be drafted higher than expected because of this announcement and the guaranteed good will it will bestow upon the team that does so. There’s a BETTER chance he’ll get drafted below expectations or not at all because of a team wanting to avoid the media microscope, so if anything, it’s probably braver for him to come out now. That would be a shame either way, because it does his announcement a grave disservice.

As a fan of both equal rights and sports in general, I have to acknowledge that possibility, but truly hope it doesn’t come to that. The goal is to one day make it to a time when a player’s past, ethnicity, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation are immaterial to the conversation of their merit as athlete, and announcements are no longer necessary. But Michael Sam’s decision to come out of the closet is a step in the right direction, and it means he did nearly the impossible for fans in Columbia, Missouri – he found a way to top what had been an incredible football season. A monumental amount of credit goes to the Mizzou football team and athletic department, who have known about this since at least August and never said a word. For the world and media to not find out about it until Sam decided to come out on his own terms here in February bespeaks the loyal, family-like atmosphere that Head Coach Gary Pinkel has worked hard to cultivate over his tenure at the university. The outpouring of support from fellow Tigers, both past and present, has been awe-inspiring. Many things have been said since Sam put himself out there, but the picture below says more than any of us could have ever hoped to:

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Awesome photo of Faurot Field this morning. #Sam #OneMizzou via Virgil Jeffery pic.twitter.com/roJ5kfH3Ia

— Zach Paul (@WeatherZach) February 10, 2014
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In my time at Mizzou, I’ve seen many proud moments, but nothing has made me prouder to be a Tiger than the way this event has galvanized my community. If someone has to break down the walls of sexual orientation in major sports, it might as well be a Missouri Tiger. We have truly become “One state, One spirit, One Mizzou.”

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