Now that an athlete has declared that he’s gay at the start of his career rather than at the end, we will find out if America’s game is willing to accept somebody for what he can do rather than what he is.
Michael Sam, an All-America defensive end at Missouri who was projected to go in the third to fifth rounds of the NFL draft (more about that later), could have picked a better sport to test our acceptance of homosexuals. After all, this is football, where the culture is macho and the game is violent.
NFL officials, team executives and coaches who are willing to be identified are all saying the right thing about merit and inclusion, and there are more than a few teams that could use a defensive end of Sam’s caliber. But even if everybody is willing to accept Sam (and you can bet a lot of people aren’t willing), he will bring a lot of media baggage with him.
The onslaught has already begun. Every media outlet in the country is on this story, and the New York Times assigned three reporters to talk to everybody in Sam’s life except the nurse who helped deliver him. The NFL will get a record number of requests for media credentials for this year’s draft.
Once Sam is drafted, the scrutiny will really ramp up. Some people define a reporter as a fellow with a can of gasoline who’s looking for smoldering fire, and you can bet every decision made about Sam will be second-guessed: How’s he doing in practice? How are his teammates accepting him? Is he getting enough playing time in scrimmages? Exhibition games?
If he gets injured, will it just be part of the game or because he was targeted? If he isn’t a starter, why is he a backup? It will be even worse if he’s relegated to special teams (the “meat grinder”) or the taxi squad.
There will be others who are more interested in fighting the cultural wars than in providing any enlightenment. Conservative talking head Rush Limbaugh, a football fan who thinks of himself as a macho guy, seems confused and conflicted already.
Then there’s Sam’s no-longer-private life. Sam has shown that he’s a highly emotional player. It remains to be seen if he can remain low key when the media spotlight is at maximum wattage.
It will take a very special–or very desperate–coach to put up with all of this distraction for just one player who may or may not be worth the trouble. Don’t be surprised if Sam is drafted late and reluctantly, or if the team that drafts him keeps him as far away from the media as possible.