Missouri defensive end Michael Sam changed the landscape of sports with the announcement that he is gay. Should he get drafted, as expected, in May’s NFL draft, he will be the first openly gay, active player in the four major professional American sports. Good for him. While I’ve had many moments where my courage has been tested in battle during my deployments overseas, I’ve never faced what he has.
Many wonder how this will affect the NFL. Many wonder how he will be perceived. Many wonder if the other players in an NFL locker room will accept a gay teammate. It’s not a surprise that there are NFL GM’s speaking “anonymously.” It’s not a surprise that NFL players right now are saying the right thing publicly – or saying nothing at all. All of this will work itself out simply based on the fact that Sam can either play at the NFL level or he can’t. Yes, there are some teams that will pass him over because they don’t want the extra attention that will come with drafting him. But that also goes for guy who smoke too much weed, get in trouble with the cops and have a lengthy history with violence. If they can play, a lot of that gets pushed under the rug. I think these things are the least of the worries for Michael Sam and his future organization and teammates.
How will the NFL handle the fans? The stadium environment? There is already a declining population of people who want to attend games for various reasons. This is a wrinkle that teams aren’t ready for. Ravens fans need to ask themselves a question – if Michael Sam gets drafted by the Steelers how many of you fans will NOT call him a “f-word?” After four hours of tailgating, you can hear perverse language run amok about everything in an NFL stadium. With a target as easy as Michael Sam and his sexuality, many fans won’t be able to control themselves. What about Eagles fans if Sam gets drafted by the Cowboys? Bears fans if he gets taken by the Packers? Hell, my guess is even fans of the team that drafts him will use that word in his direction!
Real tolerance of this issue will be in the stands, not in the locker room. Will teams throw that fan out of the stadium if someone screams that f-word at him? They should! Teams need to start holding their fan bases accountable for their actions – in all professional sports. I will only attend NFL games on rare occasions because of the boorish environment in the stands. I wouldn’t bring kids into that environment. I certainly wouldn’t trust Ravens fans – or any others – NOT to make homophobic slurs in Sam’s direction.
It’s nearly impossible control the fans these days. And until teams and professional sports start doing so, Michael Sam won’t have an easy road in front of him. True tolerance of this issue won’t be judged by his teammates, it will be judged by the fans.
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