Michael Sam is an All-American defensive lineman who recently graduated from Missouri ("Mizzou"), and might become the first openly gay NFL player. He's not in the League yet, but he came out this week and is supposed to be a 3rd-4th round draft pick. (ESPN 2/9/14).
I imagine this was pretty neat news for most of the people reading this. He'd apparently been 'out' to his college team for years without any issues, and just wanted to put all of the cards on the table for his future team. Seems fair, right? Who would want or expect someone who had already been open to have to go back into the closet? How could they?
Still, Sam coming out has caused all kinds of reactions, including some uproar about whether or not the NFL is "ready" for such a player. I also saw a few reports that his draft stats fell significantly since he made the announcement. These stats are also pretty variable in the early stages of the draft season.
This kind of story captures the interest of people who do not care about football/sports, as much as the people who get ESPN text updates. So, let me add the timeline and context for the non-sports fans. The 2014 NFL Draft is not until May 8 - May 10. However, the NFL Scouting Combine is to be held February 19-25, 2014. The NFL Scouting Combine, I just learned this week, is a week-long "showcase" for players to prove to team owners and coaches that they should be drafted. So, expect more reports about Michael Sam and his chances and the NFL's reaction during/after the Combine. If Michael Sam performs like the star All-American he's shown himself to be, the scouts should recognize what he has to offer their team -- and draft him.
In the meantime, I want to call attention to a few of the reasons the negative or ambivalent responses are nonsense:
The NFL has already had gay men.
First, I figured I'd see how many players there have ever been, and approach the question statistically. Of course, there have been A LOT of players (over +1,700 players on the if we're to trust this random InfoPlease Answer). I was preparing to calculate the odds that there had never been another gay NFL player when I found a perfectly-titled Wikipedia article, "Homosexuality in American Football," that cites six former NFL players who have come out after leaving the League.
So, we know - for a fact - that the NFL has had gay players before. (Thanks Google and Wikipedia! ) Therefore, we also know - for a fact - that the League did not implode, self-destruct, or otherwise suffer harm.
There were actually supposed to be four gay men in the NFL to come out together last April, but I guess they got cold feet. Maybe Michael Sam will be a nudge in that direction, and they will decide to use their veteran status to secure a safer space for Sam and other young gay men in the League.
Jason Collins: Forerunner or Cautionary Tale?
Jason Collins is an NBA Center who came out in April 2013 via Sports Illustrated. Before I get into the possible downside, I have to say that I love the way he starts the article.
"I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay.
I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I'm happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn't the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, "I'm different." If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I'm raising my hand."
It does a wonderful job of setting the context. He frames his privilege "34-year-old NBA center" and his intersectionality "I'm black. And I'm gay." And he shares the reluctance and responsibility he feels about coming out within the context of all of these things. Some have also noted that Michael Sam's experience in coming out has been shaped as much by his race as his sexuality.
Now, it is worth mentioning that Jason Collins has not played another game in the NBA since coming out. I'm not sure if this was a somewhat-planned early retirement decision, or if he expected to be picked up again? However, the fact is that he is in his mid-30s and had played over a decade of professional sports. He could very well be at the end of his career--gay or not. Still, it doesn't exactly bode well for Michael Sam. So far, America has not had to prove its lack of homophobia in men's professional sports. Although the NFL says they do not discriminate, as a point of policy, it should be interesting to see whether that is true in practice. All of the other athletes have waited until they were safely retired or retirement.
Michael Sam making this announcement right before his career is supposed to begin is unprecedented and incredibly courageous... and should be recognized as such. Only time will tell whether this heroism has hurt him (ie. How he does with his draft and his future salary).
If the U.S. military can accept gay people, so can the NFL.
The Football War) This is not a crazy liberal opinion or even a value-judgment against the sport. It's just an obvious connection. The entire game is land-acquisition via strategy and force. You smash your front lines into each other to move the ball and the "line of scrimmage" deeper into your opponents land, until you reach their end-zone.
If football is like war, then the players are like soldiers. I say that to say, if the actual military can accept gay people, the people who imitate war can, too. Surely we should not take the (real or imagined) concerns of people who get paid millions of dollars to play a game for living as seriously as soldier going into real war-zones... And those concerns were ultimately dismissed with the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
The NFL could do - and has done - WAY worse than a gay man.
Does the name OJ Simpson ring any bells? What about Dennis Stallworth? Or maybe Michael Vick (Felony dog fighting)? What about Rae Carruth (In prison until 2018 for conspiring to murder the woman carrying his child)? Or Dwayne Goodrich (DUI Manslaughter: Hit & Run)? There is a whole list of convicted football players. Most of these players had already ended their NFL contracts or had to become Free Agents after their convictions, but some are still playing, or got signed on with prior convictions.
On that note, I want to join PZ Myers in applauding sports announcer Dale Hansen for doing a great job of summing up the hypocrisy here...
I don't want to go on and on about this. Partially because it is a sickening topic that makes me question America's decency, and partially because the point is so obvious and irrefutable. In terms of morality-based drafting, the NFL team owners do not have a leg to stand on.
If being a good football player is the most important factor, regardless of personal life, let's just be sure to apply that standard to everyone. Owners' & coaches' opinions and beliefs about gay people should no more factor into NFL contract decision any more than opinions about drug trafficking and assault played into those contract deals.
What message are we sending about "Role Models" in the NFL?
Is the NFL a place for role models...or not? Some have argued "YES! The NFL is a place for role models, and that's why we do NOT want any openly gay players. Think of the children!" and similar nonsense.
But let's break this down for a minute. First, NFL players are often NOT exemplary role models (see above). Secondly, isn't someone who is open and honest about who they are, in addition to being a good football player exactly the kind of role model the NFL (and parents) should want to promote?
What kind of message does it give if we encourage people to stay in the closet in order to be good role models? Or that you can still be a role model even if you do awful things, as long as you also play a sport well? Aren't either of those worse messages to send than "You can be gay and play pro football."
Conclusion: Why straight people should be some of the most vocal advocates for LGBT visibility.
Unless you believe that homosexuality is a choice or that gay people are somehow incapable of playing football, gay football players are an inevitability. I think many people, on some level, understand that reality.
Now, I'm going to say something that might surprise you. I don't think people care as much whether or not a football player is gay, but rather whether gay football players come out. Some people are "fine with" LGBT people... unless and until you actually tell them you are one. The standard is also different for certain people to be gay than it is for others. For example, singers and actors have been "out" longer than professional athletes.
Tellingly, you will hear folks say that they do not dislike gays, but think they should "keep 'it' to themselves." Some will say they do not want to see gay people kissing or holding hands in public. What they do not realize is that this is inherently discriminatory since they would never make such demands of heterosexual couples in public. Whatever constitutes "acceptable PDA" should be the same for everyone. Otherwise, the issue becomes the desire to hide and deny a certain subset of the population from view. LGBT Invisibility.
|Even supporting LGBT people in the NFL is potentially dangerous...|
No really. Let's say you're honestly afraid or averse to gay people and don't want them seeing you naked. Why would you want it to be a mystery who is gay? It makes more sense to be supportive of everyone coming out, even if it is just to know who to avoid while naked.
On a less malicious and irrational note, it makes sense that non-homophobic straight people would welcome less competition for the partners they want to marry or date - and less time investment on incompatible partners. From a strictly economic perspective, the last thing straight folks should want are closeted gay men and women "stealing" your dates.
So, if you were single this Valentine's Day (or if you've ever been single ANY Valentine's Day - and not wanted to be) encourage people to come out and be honest about their sexuality...
Remember: Encouraging LGBT visibility and acceptance increases the odds of the "right" people finding each other - however that is defined - and wastes less of everyone else's time (including straight people!)
|Also, being an LGBT Ally for Equality's sake is also good...|
Additional Reading- "The Bravest of All, Michael Sam Moves Us Forward"
This is a great article written by a former NFL player (Wade Davis) who came out after leaving the NFL and applauds Michael Sam for coming out before the Draft.
- "Penalties for Success: Reactions to Women Who Succeed at Male Gender-Typed Tasks" - Heilman, Wallen, Fuchs, & Tamkins, 2004 -
As a slight aside, we often "gender" professions, as well as individuals. Research suggests that we apply different standards and judgments to people who are performing non-gender conforming tasks or professions.
- Reaction to Michael Sam coming out is as much about race as homophobia
This piece touches on the intersectional identities of "Black Man" and "Gay Man" and how they are not seen as congruent in the media.
- Bias in the Workplace: Consistent Evidence of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Discrimination - (Badgett, Holning, Sears, & Ho, 2007)