Missouri defensive end Michael Sam told the world Sunday evening that he was gay, setting up the prospect to be the first openly gay NFL player to play in the league if he is drafted, as is projected. The response to his interview announcement has been overwhelmingly positive; count this author among those who are supportive.
Despite such a showing of accepting behavior, there is still an underbelly to this revelation. Under the cloak of anonymity, one NFL player personnel executive stated, “I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet.” He continued, “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”
A man’s-man game. Seriously?
We’ve progressed to a point in society where it is no longer acceptable to be openly racist, sexist or bigoted in a blatant fashion, and this is certainly something to be celebrated. However, that does not eliminate the bigotry, racism or sexism. Rather, it takes on a new coded illustration in order to express their intolerance in a more politically correct fashion.
Recalling the 2008 Democratic Primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, a common refrain was that America just wasn’t ready for a black or a female President. What went unsaid was that the rest of the country would just have to be ‘ok’ with that and should wait until America was ready for said demographics.
I suspect the motives are the same here. Is the NFL ready for an openly gay player? The question surely is an interesting one and should be discussed at length. It is not, however, probative. Those who seek answers to this question hope to use the various answers it would glean as ammo in the correlated but unparalleled discussion of whether Sam should play in the NFL, whether his homosexuality should play a role in his draft stock and whether it should be considered as part of his player file, either as a positive or a negative.
Asking this question is an attempt to maintain the status quo. The subtext is not quite so subliminal. Throwing Sam into a locker room, according to the executive, would upset its chemical balance and challenge the manliness of the sport. Is this to mean that Sam is less of a man because he is gay? Does using gay slurs on the football field contribute to the sport’s masculinity? Nothing was ‘chemically imbalanced’ in the Miami Dolphins‘ locker room this past season, right?
The question of whether the NFL is ‘ready’ for Sam is totally and 100 percent irrelevant and does nothing but serve the purpose of those who wish to use his sexuality against him. To use any answer to this question as something other than an interesting topic on 60 Minutes is to misunderstand the nature of the situation. Whether football is ready for a gay player should not matter.
If Team A doesn’t want to draft Sam because he is gay, that is a Team A problem, not a Sam problem. If Team A doesn’t want to draft Sam because of the publicity and media attention the team will get as a result, this is a media problem, not a Sam problem. If Team A doesn’t want to draft Sam because some of their players don’t like the idea of a gay player in their locker room, that is a locker room problem and still not a Sam problem. In practice, it sheds a light on many of football’s already out-standing issues, not Sam’s potential one.
Sam’s imminent entrance into the ranks of the NFL is sure to brew up more and more articles and stories. The hope here is that it won’t and that he will be treated like any other consensus All-American defensive end entering the Draft. Questioning whether the NFL is ready for a gay player should not be a reason to reject him, but rather an invitation for him to join and change the culture of professional football from one that is perceived to be not ready, to one that is open and accepting.
Regardless of whether football is ready, we are all about to find out.