Michael Sam, a standout football player at the University of Minnesota and NFL hopeful, actually might be the antithesis of what the “typical” gay man looks/sounds/acts like. I believe this fact is the cause for the amount of media attention his coming-out story has received.
In a time where the LGBT community is receiving growing exposure in the public eye [DOMA has been overturned, gay marriage is legal in a growing number of states, same-sex relationships are portrayed in several prime time TV shows], this story still creates buzz about how Sam will fare as an openly gay man in the NFL draft. Opinions and predictions about Sam’s future as an NFL player have been wide-ranged.
“I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,” one NFL player personnel assistant told Sports Illustrated Sunday. “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.”
This quote perfectly illustrates a struggle to accept an overlap of the descriptors “manly” and “gay.” A football player listed at 6 feet 2 inches and 260 pounds, first team all-American, who was named the Associated Press defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference can safely be described by most as “manly”. Michael Sam IS a “man’s-man”. He is what the average American envisions as a successful college athlete getting ready to go pro. He fits all the criteria for football superstar voted by his own team as most valuable player. He is all of those things. Now that very same man is proclaiming to the world that he can also be described as gay.
I believe that this puts many football fans, sports aficionados, and Americans at a crossroads. I ask the question: “What does it mean that Michael Sam is gay?” It means that no longer can we spot the gay man in the crowd by his slim build and Burberry scarf. No longer can we safely assume that a gay man’s sport is doubles figure skating. No longer can we identify, without asking, a man who is attracted to men simply by his flamboyant behavior and mannerisms. No longer does the description of the “typical” gay man apply.
And that, in my opinion, creates a helluva lot of fear. How then, to figure out who might be gay? How will teams in the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL identify the gay man in the locker room, as to shield themselves from the “distraction of his presence”, as one former NFL general manager puts it?
If a “man’s-man” like Michael Sam can be gay, it begs the question of America’s collective conscience, “Who else is gay?”
The answer is: there are many of us. There are gay athletes performing on the field in every sport imaginable. There are several “manly” gay men scoring touchdowns, pitching no-hitters, putting up triple-doubles, and winning MVP titles. Equally present are “feminine” gay women competing in collegiate and professional sports.
One of the arguments I saw most repeated in the news on Michael Sam is that his presence on an NFL team will cause a distraction both in the locker room and in the media. “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to theToday Show,” said a former NFL general manager. To this argument I say, “The discomfort and distraction lies not within Michael Sam, but within those who can not find a way to maintain their own inner focus and balance.” Whether or not an individual supports Michael Sam, he/she must maintain responsibility for the behavior and attitude exuded in the presence of others. For Michael Sam’s future teammates, this means maintaining focus and a sense of professionalism while on the job. The same professionalism NFL players are asked to maintain with any media buzz. From Michael Vick’s horrific behavior toward animals, to Tom Brady’s offspring and latest relationship, to Aaron Hernandez being charged with murder, to Rex Ryan’s foot fetish, certainly NFL players have had some experience maintaining focus and professionalism amidst media frenzy.
The fact that Michael Sam is gay, in and of itself, should not make the news headlines. However, the sharp feelings of discomfort and confusion that his story has created, makes it a story worth talking about. Only through exposure, conversation, and transparency will we as Americans expand our view of exactly who we are, and the people who live among us.