On Sunday, University of Missouri football star Michael Sam announced that he is gay. Sam, a first-team all-American defensive end, had a great year at No. 5 Mizzou, notching 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles-for-loss. The AP named him SEC defensive player of the year. (That's "a little like being named the baddest dude in a biker bar," says The Dallas Morning News' Kevin Sherrington.)
The New York Times and ESPN.com both have long interviews with Sam, and his coming-out story seems pretty normal: He came to terms with being gay in college, tested the waters and told some trusted friends, and then went public. He informed his teammates in August. Now, everyone will know. "I am an openly, proud gay man," he told ESPN.
A college kid coming out as gay isn't big news, maybe even if he's a football player. And "in 2014, 'Gay Man to Enter Workforce' has the everyday-occurrence sound of a headline in The Onion," says ESPN's Chris Connelly. But Sam doesn't want to get just any old job: He's placed himself in the NFL draft, and come May he'll either become the first openly gay athlete drafted into the National Football League — or really, any of the four major U.S. pro men's sports — or the NFL will have a problem on its hands. (Here's a helpful timeline of gay pro athletes.)
The NFL has an official policy barring discrimination based on sexual orientation. But the league can't compel any of its 32 teams to sign a player. Before his disclosure on Sunday, Sam was considered a mid-level draft pick, expected to be signed in the third round or a bit lower.
Plenty of sports writers argue that Sam will rise or fall on his talent — to be put to the test at the end of the month in the NFL combine, where teams evaluate players on the field and off — not his sexual orientation. If the legendary coach Vince Lombardi was defending and protecting gay players on his team in 1969, says LZ Granderson at ESPN, "I would think there's at least one coach who is man enough to handle a gay player in 2014."
Some coaches, owners, and NFL veterans will find some reasons to not want Sam on their team, Granderson adds, but "there are plenty of secure men — such as Houston's Bill O'Brien, such as Seattle's Pete Carroll, such as the Patriots' Bob Kraft and the Saints' Drew Brees — who will look at Sam and ask themselves the most important question: Can he help me win?" The answer is probably yes," Granderson says, because Sam has "undeniable, pro-level talent":
The kind of talent that would make the prospect of him not being drafted, not being signed, not having his cleats laced up on Sundays perhaps the most blatant form of pop culture homophobia since Ellen DeGeneres was chased off of television in 1998. That was a long time ago. [ESPN]
In fact, Sam's decision to come out before the NFL combine "may have raised his draft stock in some eyes because of his courage," offers USA Today's Jarrett Bell.
But reporters and columnists don't sign new players, and the attitudes of teammates and even coaches don't hold as much (if any) sway in the draft as the front office. That's where Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans at Sports Illustrated aimed their questions, and the results aren't promising.
Thamel and Evans spoke with "eight NFL executives and coaches," both active and retired, all unidentified. And "in blunt terms, they project a significant drop in Sam's draft stock, a publicity circus, and an NFL locker room culture not prepared to deal with an openly gay player," they report. The coaches, scouts, and general managers mostly argue that the NFL players aren't ready for a gay man in the locker room.
One former GM said that Sam's problems will come in the draft room. When it comes down to Sam and another player, the GM explained, his sexual orientation "will break a tie" against Sam:
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?" [Sports Illustrated]
It's tempting to dismiss the former GMs and current scouts as old men out of touch with today's locker rooms or harboring personal prejudices, but there's at least one glaring reason to take the warnings seriously: Jason Collins.
Collins, a free agent and 12-year NBA veteran, came out last summer, when he was in between pro basketball teams. Nobody has signed him, despite all the positive publicity he earned for becoming (arguably) the first openly gay athlete in the NBA, NFL, MLB, or National Hockey League. "Maybe that’s because he’s gay, and every franchise is too cowardly to sign him up," says Slate's Josh Levin. "Or maybe it’s because he’s an old, defensive-minded center in a league that no longer prizes big men," not to mention "a borderline, so-so player."
Michael Sam is a different case — if nobody signs him, everyone will now assume it is because he is gay (with good reason). The NFL pre-emptively welcomed Sam into its ranks, saying in a statement: "We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014."
But pro football has as much riding on the draft now as Sam does. Maybe more. Former Miami Dolphin Jonathan Martin has pulled open the locker room door to expose what appears to be a well-ingrained culture of hard-core bullying and harassment (or at least into guard Richie Incognito's brutal threats-and-taunts version of it) in the NFL. And in a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 40 percent of Americans say they'd try to prevent their kids from playing football due to the high incidence of brain-injuring concussions.
The NFL can't afford to lose the confidence of parents. Sure, kids often rebel against their parents, but they can't enroll themselves in youth football camps (much less pay for the camps or get themselves there) or throw the football to themselves in the backyard. The type of parent who balks at concussions and tough-guy locker room harassment is probably more likely to be unimpressed if none of the NFL's 32 teams signs a pro-caliber player because he's gay.
Pro football probably won't ever lack for players. But it needs more than bodies — it needs audience-drawing talent.
"Every time the public gets a glimpse behind the curtain, the view is extremely unappetizing," The Week's William Falk wrote in the wake of the Martin-Incognito controversy. Parents are rightly concerned about the early dementia from concussions, but "the more immediate danger is what the game might do to their values." Falk concluded at the time: "If I were NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league's owners, I'd be a little worried right now."
That's true now more than ever.