It is extremely encouraging to see people in all walks of life send congratulatory messages to University of Missouri football player Michael Sam after he courageously revealed Sunday night that he’s gay.
This outpouring of support from teammates, coaches, fans, celebrities and politicians shows that much of America has progressed on this social issue.
Sam’s announcement is a watershed moment in the march toward equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans. He is poised to become the first openly gay player in one of the nation’s great pastimes, the National Football League.
However, the national blitz of mostly positive attention for Sam can’t block out some ugly realities.
Open prejudice still exists against gay athletes in football and other major league sports. Intolerance manifests itself in other arenas, too; witness attempts in state legislatures to prevent same-sex couples from having their marriages recognized.
The most important next step for Americans to watch regarding Sam will arrive at the NFL draft in early May. That’s when we’ll find out whether some evolution on gay athletes has occurred in the workplaces of the older, too-often-bigoted NFL officials who will decide which team will draft him.
In a chilling article Sunday, Sports Illustrated gave anonymity to NFL officials, all of whom predicted various troubles for Sam. He would lose money by being picked lower in the draft, meaning coming out was “not a smart move” for him. He would “chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room,” becoming a big distraction for his team.
These NFL officials need to examine what happened at MU this year: The entire team knew about Sam’s orientation, yet the Tigers went on to have an extremely successful season.
Maybe the young men and women who play sports these days have a different, more enlightened take on this matter. So do some college coaches. As University of Kansas basketball coach Bill Self said Monday, “I don’t think anybody should ever have to live or hide behind who they are or how they feel.”
Michael Sam finds himself in a unique situation, given the mega-attention that the NFL receives. And that makes his story extra compelling.
Sam — and the other gay men who will follow him into the league — should have the opportunity to open people’s eyes while playing on the biggest stage for sports in America.