Column: Michael Sam is ready for the NFL; is it ready for him?

By Bill Plaschke

Los Angeles Times

An accomplished young football player used courage and heart to charge into a raucous room lined with hostility and fear.

sam

Defensive lineman Michael Sam, right, announced Sunday that he is gay and would be the first openly gay player in the NFL. (Photo: Screen grab from L.A. Times video)

And they wonder if Michael Sam will have trouble surviving the NFL?

When the All-American defensive lineman from the University of Missouri announced Sunday that “I am an openly, proud gay man,”  he may as well have attempted a flying tackle without a helmet.

If Sam is drafted this spring as expected, he will become the first openly gay active player in America’s most popular sport. That’s a big deal. Sadly, so too has been that sport’s initial reaction.

Shortly after Sam’s revelation, the ignorance of a professional sports locker room issued a rebuttal.

There were some anonymous NFL general managers saying that Sam’s draft prospects — he was projected to go in the third round — had dropped. There were other anonymous personnel bosses saying their teams couldn’t accept it.

There were players such as the Pittsburgh SteelersRyan Clark wondering how Sam should be treated, almost as if he had a disease. There was even one former coach, Herm Edwards, describing Sam’s sexual orientation as  “baggage.’’

The fallout from Sam’s brave statement of self shows the extent of his bravery. He could have kept quiet, just as surely dozens of other gay professional athletes in team sports keep quiet. He could have lived a lie like many others feel forced to live. It might have felt easier and safer, and nobody would have cared.

But, clearly, Sam would have cared, and that’s what makes his admission so important. This is not about sexuality, this is about self-empowerment, the lessons that it offers, and the strength that it gives.

Judging from past email reactions I received after similar sexuality stories, many fans heard the Sam announcement and wondered, Why is this a big deal? Who cares who Michael Sam sleeps with? Nobody cares if he’s gay; why does he feel a need to advertise?

Here’s guessing he wasn’t selling it to us or to anyone in the NFL; he was doing it for himself. He was tired of hiding himself. He wanted to start his new career as himself. He had already come out to his Missouri football teammates, but now he wanted to come out, period, and forever escape the shadows of fear.

Why is this a big deal? Because this message of being yourself is the same one America attempts to teach its children. It’s a message that can’t be repeated enough. It’s a message that should be resounding now.

And, actually, the NFL’s ignorance aside, it really isn’t a big deal. The Missouri Tigers played the entire season with a gay teammate and wound up playing in the Southeastern Conference championship game and beating Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl.

Michael Sam will have no trouble surviving the NFL. Here’s hoping the NFL will be smart enough to survive him.

[Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who is gay, issued the following statement Monday afternoon:  “I applaud Michael Sam for his incredible courage to come out. He could – and should – become the first openly-gay NFL player in history. Who he is or who he loves shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is because he is the first to blaze this trail. The importance of his leadership on this issue cannot be understated – even as we hear about the possible reluctance of teams to take a chance on a player who happens to be gay. I hope to see Michael Sam play for a team deserving of his incredible talents – perhaps even right here in Seattle for our Super Bowl Champion Seahawks.”]

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