How Michael Sam Coming Out Could Trickle Down to H.S. Football
University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam stole the sports world's attention on Sunday by telling ESPN and the New York Times that he's gay. If he's drafted this May, he'd become the first openly gay player in the history of the National Football League.
The courageous announcement could end up having trickle-down effects to high school football, either positive or negative, depending on what happens to Sam in the next few months.
Sports Illustrated reporters Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans asked eight NFL executives and coaches how Sam's coming out might affect his draft stock. "In blunt terms," Thamel and Evans wrote, "they project a significant drop in Sam's draft stock, a publicity circus, and an NFL locker room culture not prepared to deal with an openly gay player."
One player-personnel assistant went so far as to tell Thamel and Evans: "I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet. 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."
If those predictions come true, and Sam—who's projected as a third- or fourth-round draft pick by CBSSports.com—falls out of the draft entirely, it could serve as a cautionary tale for younger closeted players. Being open with their sexuality could end up costing them millions of dollars, as unfair as that is, with teams deathly afraid of drafting a so-called "distraction."
Ideally, Sam's sexual orientation will have no bearing on his draft stock, just as it has no bearing on his ability to play football. The Southeastern Conference named him its Co-Defensive Player of the Year this past season, as the senior racked up 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss for a Missouri Tigers team that finished 12-2.
Sam told his teammates that he is gay before the start of this past season, according to the Times. Their reaction?
"I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their heads—like, finally, he came out," Sam told the paper.
Being gay didn't prevent the 24-year-old from dominating on the football field. Quite the contrary, actually, as evidenced by his senior-year statistics.
ESPN.com draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. believes that Sam's announcement shouldn't prevent him from getting drafted (subscription required). He believes that "decisionmakers care less about whether Sam is gay than they do about hordes of media asking team officials and players to comment on what they think of Sam."
That "distraction" angle won't last forever, though. As noted by Bleacher Report's Dan Levy, the Philadelphia Eagles aren't strangers to distractions over the past few years, between quarterback Michael Vick, who was jailed on dog-fighting charges, and receiver Riley Cooper, who was caught on video making a racist comment. The Eagles integrated both players into their locker room with considerable success.
If Sam gets drafted and does blaze the trail as the NFL's first openly gay player, younger players could feel more comfortable following in his footsteps. To think that there aren't middle and high school football teams with gay athletes currently on their rosters would be naïve at best.
The uncertainty of how the NFL will cope with an openly gay player could soon be coming to an end, thanks to Sam. Until then, he'll have to settle for earning praise from President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle:
You're an inspiration to all of us, @MikeSamFootball. We couldn't be prouder of your courage both on and off the field. -mo-- FLOTUS (@FLOTUS) February 10, 2014
Congratulations on leading the way, @MikeSamFootball. That's real sportsmanship.-- Barack Obama (@BarackObama) February 10, 2014
Sam will likely be one of sports' biggest stories over the coming months. Gay and straight athletes alike can learn a lot from his courage, no matter what happens to him during the draft in May.
Photo: Missouri senior defensive lineman Michael Sam speaks to the media during a news conference in January before the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas. (Brandon Wade/AP)
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