The Super Bowl may be past, but now we have the more exciting, potentially groundbreaking story of Michael Sam, a top defensive player for the University of Missouri football team who is widely expected to be drafted by the National Football League. Sam just came out in an interview published yesterday in the New York Times. Though professional athletes have come out after their playing days were over, should Sam be drafted he would be the first NFL player to enter the league as a publicly gay man.
There are two ways that Sam’s actions can help young people and our culture at large. The first is as a civil rights issue. As Joe Posnanski shows brilliantly in a piece on NBC Sports, the situation Sam finds himself in is eerily similar to that of Jackie Robinson in 1947. Many sneakily pragmatic arguments have come from the NFL coaching establishment as to why Sam wouldn’t be a good fit in the pros or the clubhouse—they’ve all been said before, and they were all proven to be not only prejudiced, but ludicrous. The fact is, the inclusion of minorities in our nation’s popular pastimes has had real and society-changing outcomes before, and we don’t need to wait until “ten years from now,” where one GM put the timeline for change.
But there’s one important way in which sexual orientation is not like skin color. Jackie Robinson was not able to be in the closet. And here is where Sam can be another kind of hero—as a role model for kids who struggle with their sexuality and with being honest about it.
We know that kids who don’t feel accepted for their sexual orientation are at risk for depression and suicide. And for many of them it can seem impossible to find a mentor who understands. Without guidance and good information, it can feel like peers are not on the same planet. And isolation can be a young person’s very worst enemy.
Enter Sam. As a public figure, he is aware of the uncertain future he has brought upon himself in a sport that has been hostile to even the idea of homosexuality. “I’m not naïve,” he told the Times. “I know this is a huge deal.” And he is also aware of how the media can twist your words, even your persona. “I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” he continued.
But it is his story about coming out to his teammates, about finding people he could trust and being himself with, that I hope rings true for young people who struggle with a hidden part of themselves. “Once I became official to my teammates, I knew who I was,” he said. “I was so proud of myself and I just didn’t care who knew.”
Thanks to Sam it seems inevitable that some people might soon find it easier to believe that a football player can be gay. Others, that a gay man can be a football player. Both are big steps forward. After he came out to his team, he said, “If someone on the street would have asked me, ‘Hey, Mike, I heard you were gay; is that true?’ I would have said yes.”
That didn’t happen, Sam said, for an understandable reason. “I guess they don’t want to ask a 6-3, 260-pound defensive lineman if he was gay or not.” Here’s hoping that it just got a little better for young people of any size who struggle with who they are.