Sam creates controversy as the NFL’s first openly gay prospect

Sports Commentary
— Thomas Ross ’14

Over the course of a week, Michael Sam has ascended from a middle-of-the-pack draft prospect into a role model for many leaders in the LGBT movement across America. Sam has made it clear he is just a football player and that he does not intend to be a spokesperson for the LGBT movement.

However, sometimes actions speak louder than words, and what Sam has done will continue to break down walls in society that confine individuals with different sexual orientations. Sam’s confidence, bravery, and sheer bravado in the face of adversity are some things of which all Americans can be proud of.

Sam’s announcement comes at a tumultuous time for the NFL. His acceptance into the NFL may actually allow the league to repair its partially tarnished reputation in the aftermath of the Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin bullying scandal.

This scandal revealed that Incognito and other former Dolphins teammates of Jonathan Martin used homophobic slurs along with other bullying statements in various conversations with Martin and at least one other Dolphin player. Their actions leave a black eye on the Dolphins franchise and cause the avid sports fan to wonder what truly does transpire in an NFL locker room.

The report put together by independent investigator Ted Wells revealed evidence of consistent harassment by Incognito, Mike Pouncey, and John Jerry. The find- ings were released on Friday, Feb. 14. The league is now reviewing the case, and it is likely punish- ments will follow.

But, what does this all mean for Sam? Can he be accepted in an NFL locker room?

No one knows for certain if Sam will be accepted; however, if anyone can learn how to deal with all the media scrutiny and pressure that accompanies being one of the few openly gay, professional athletes it is Sam, who does not exactly have a rosy upbringing.

He is the seventh of eight chil- dren, three of whom are dead, two more are in prison. Sam’s relationship with his family is strained, and, in interviews, Sam said he often sleeps at friends’ houses when he goes back home.

In Sam’s mind, coming out of the closet was easy compared to everything else he faced in his life. Sam’s relationship with his father came to the forefront of this story when Michael Sam Sr. was quoted as saying, “I don’t want my grandkids raised in that kind of environment.” Sam Sr. went on to say, “I’m old school, and I’m a man and a woman type of guy.”

These disheartening comments made my stomach drop. Family is supposed to support you when you need them most, not shun you away. This is sad, but there are backwards traditionalists who seemingly cannot adapt to the changing times. Will these people drive Sam out of an NFL football locker room?

I think not. A locker room tends to seek out the weak in terms of football ability, and, if Sam can compete, I think he will be accepted. Obviously, the Miami Dolphins went completely overboard and leadership in the team’s locker room failed to keep things under control. But to say this is how all locker rooms in the NFL operate would be unjust and a disservice to NFL football players.

The reason why NFL locker rooms tend to seek out the weak is in an effort to break those players down so they can be built back up and become stronger. This is a tactic used across the sports world and in various other professions. To think this will change over night is naive. Peter King reported shortly after Sam’s announcement that certain NFL executives did not think an openly gay athlete would be accepted in their locker rooms. The men went on to com- pare NFL locker rooms in terms of their business culture to the 1950s. The men who spoke these words asked to remain anonymous in a gutless move.

Because the NFL is inherently different than any other workplace, the culture of an NFL locker room cannot be replicated in the business world. But even more than the barbaric nature of the sport, is the fact that a locker room consists of only men. It was not until the 1970s that women reporters were allowed into NFL locker rooms to interview players.

Since the 1970s we have seen many changes in the workplace environment and shall see these changes in the NFL locker room. Individuals will be scared because it is different, but that does not mean they are against an openly gay athlete being their teammate.

One thing I am sure about is that it will be extremely tough for whatever franchise decides to bring in Sam because of the media attention and scrutiny that comes along with being the first at anything, especially being an openly gay athlete. I suggest the New York Jets stay clear of this one!

However, in the end, the NFL is about performance, and, production; if Sam helps his team win, I guarantee he will be accepted. That is not to say there will not be a learning curve. Everyone, including Sam, will be experiencing this for the first time with these players at the professional level.

Sam’s announcement to his college teammates that he was gay did not seem to affect the Missouri Tigers last year. The Tigers finished atop the SEC East, going 7-1 in the toughest division in college football. Along with the team’s success, Sam led the SEC Conference in sacks and tackles for a loss and, by doing so, earned himself the co-defensive player of the year honors alongside Alabama’s C.J. Mosley.

Only time will tell what lays ahead for Sam. But I believe America is ready for this to happen, and the NFL is much more ready than some executives believe.

Senior Thomas Ross is a staff writer. His email is tross@fandm.edu.

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