First and Gay: What Michael Sam’s Coming Out Means For The NFL

Yesterday on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” All-American defensive lineman from Missouri and the Associated Press’ SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam came out of the closet, and no matter where he ends up getting drafted, the reality is that next football season, an openly gay player will be taking the field for the first time.

And the NFL has to be ready for all that comes with this.

Sure, while NFL public relations head Greg Aiello tweeted, “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage…we look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014,” and NFLPA president Domonique Foxwroth says that “the union will accept him with open arms, as will our players,” this is still a league that had multiple closeted athletes supposedly back out from a decision to come out together just as recently as last spring.

The negative ramifications were just too great for these players…and that really sucks.

In the Bleacher Report piece linked to above, the story of a semi-out defensive back that wasn’t signed in free agency by any team despite a glowing resume is brought up — with many believing Kerry Rhodes was said player — and if you look at the media circus that caught fire when Perez Hilton alleged that former Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers was gay, it sadly makes sense.

And that’s because the NFL has sucked so far when it comes to this issue.

For every talk on the issue of sexual orientation that goes on at the NFL Rookie Symposium, there are stories making headlines like ex-Vikings Chris Kluwe alleging he was fired because of his pro-gay rights activism or the infamous Dolphins locker room hazing incident, which involved racial and homophobic epithets being casually tossed around like it was Christmas at Joe Barton’s house.

Somehow, the NFL doesn’t see the a problem with the fact that it has, according to players and executives, somewhere between several dozen and several hundred gay players, yet none of them feel comfortable enough to publicly out themselves.

Sure, some individual players have outed themselves as idiots publicly, most notably 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver claiming that he “don’t do the gay guys” and more recently Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma alleging that a gay player “would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted,” but the league and its teams have shown their true colors in a more subtle but more important way: by letting Sam’s draft stock plummet.

The players will eventually police themselves, especially with notable athletes like Robert Griffin III telling GQ, “Yeah, man. I think there are [gay players] right now, and if they’re looking for a window to just come out, I mean, now is the window. My view on it is, yes, I am a Christian, but to each his own. You do what you want to do.” But when NFL executives are already admitting that they expect a “significant drop” in Sam’s draft stock because “Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to the Today show [and] a general manager is going to ask, ‘Why are we going to do that to ourselves?’”  then there’s a real problem with the whole institution.

Yes there’s going to be backlash.

Fans can be terrible people — just ask AC Milan player Mario Balotelli who was forced to tears because of racial slurs being hurled at him — and some players are going to say dumb things to the media, but every team should be seeing this as an opportunity to proudly anoint themselves as a progressive, intelligent organization that understands that they will be seen as a hero when this chapter is written in the NFL history books. Just ask the Dodgers how they feel about that whole Jackie Robinson/integration thing

The NBA missed out an opportunity with Jason Collins because teams could argue that his age and diminishing skills were what led to him not getting signed the season after he came out of the closet, but the NFL is going to be forced to reckon with Michael Sam and the now inevitable issue of homosexuality and the NFL co-existing. One can only hope that they see the situation the same way Sam himself sees it:

“I’ve grown up in a great generation [that’s] more accepting of people. We’re living in 2014. I just see only possibility and great opportunity.”