Michael Sam, NFL prospect and current SEC Defensive Player of the Year, has positioned himself to become the first openly gay athlete to play a game in one of the "Big 4" American professional leagues. He burst through the proverbial closet on February 10th when he disclosed his sexuality to the world in an ESPN interview.
For the longest time I thought an established star would be the first to break the barrier; I never considered it being an undeniable talent rising through the ranks of collegiate sport. Still, Sam playing in the National Football League is not guaranteed. Before he came out, pundits expected him to be drafted between the third and fifth rounds. Now, he faces even more scrutiny as he heads to the all-important NFL Combines.
The trouble for Sam is that his entry into the NFL is now subject to talent evaluators determining whether he has the skill to succeed in the league. Indeed, when people discuss this issue of the first openly gay athlete in major U.S. professional sport, they often quip, "the only thing that matters is whether he can play or not." Unfortunately, having never suited up professionally, deciding whether Sam is good enough can be very arbitrary stuff, with decisions made behind closed doors and no explanation necessary one way or another. Moreover, this process is conducive to a team being able to cloak its homophobia and pass off Sam going undrafted as a failure on his part. Thus, his performance at the Combine will be critical - numbers don't lie.
I'm surprised sport teams haven't embraced the chance to market the first openly gay athlete. Surely there's money in it for owners to have a successful out athlete on their team? Is the homophobia in "Big 4" sport that dense that even the almighty dollar can't cut through it? I suspect much of the resistance to an openly gay player on an ownership level has a great deal to do with the demographics of that group. The owners tend to be older, white, and male - stereotypically unsupportive of LGBT folks.
Fortunately for gays in sport, young people support gay issues in vastly disproportionate numbers to older generations. The truth is, times are changing. The gatekeepers of homophobia in sport can stem the tide for only so long before the youth of today and tomorrow say "no more" for good. It really is that simple. Young people, by and large, have no interest in withholding anything from gay people. They've gone to school with out students, lived in neighbourhoods with gay parents. They've been able to unlearn the homophobia passed down from generation to generation.
Michael Sam has also benefited from the strides made by countless others in the recent past. People were very quick to discredit or brush aside the comings out of Jason Collins, Robbie Rogers, Tom Daley etc. Yet, we should not discredit their importance in making the narrative of an out gay athlete feel familiar and more comfortable when confronted with someone like Michael Sam. While none of them has played a game as an openly gay athlete in the NFL, MLB, NBA, or NHL, they have each forced us to have a conversation about it. Additionally, all these athletes have dispelled the myth that masculinity and homosexuality are incongruous.
What Michael Sam may be about to achieve is the realization of the hard work of many people across a variety of sports. The Burke family have put their hands up for making professional hockey an inclusive place for LGBT folks. Brian Burke, long time NHL executive, has continued the work of his late, openly gay son, in supporting LGBT charities. He's even marched in multiple Pride parades to honour his son's legacy. This is partly what makes the gay rights movement so powerful: it's fathers standing up for their sons, kids knowing that their aunts and uncles have been treated unfairly their entire lives and saying "no more." It's deeply personal. These interpersonal relationships are invaluable towards breaking down stereotypes and unlearning prejudice.
In recent times, there has been a landslide of momentum in favour of gay rights in the United States. President Obama has become increasingly on board with the movement, and has likely hastened its progress with his "evolution" in recent years. More and more states are deciding gays should have the right to marry. It's time for big time professional sport in America to catch up with society. If, for whatever reason, Michael Sam doesn't make it to the NFL in 2014, it is still only a matter of time before someone else comes along to achieve what we hope he will. In the hyper-masculine world of American professional sport, I am certain there is now room for Michael Sam. Athletes and fans will adjust to the newly gay-inclusive sporting landscape, and the world will not end - it will be better for it.