It’s easy to root for Michael Sam. The Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year came from beginnings beyond humble, with most his siblings are either dead or in jail. His parents split, and he ended up the first in his family to even consider college, much less make it there on a football scholarship to Missouri. He came to campus as an average talent, undersized and anonymous. And after years of work, he led the SEC in sacks and tackles for a loss and now stands on the precipice of making an NFL roster as a star defensive end. He avoided the pitfalls that could have stopped him at any point, from childhood to emergent star on campus, to win the American lottery of sorts, to avoid the plague of poverty that sticks like a contagion in too many disadvantaged families. That, in itself, makes Michael Sam the kind of guy you’d like to cheer for.
And yet now, he’s made it even easier. Because in the course of one announcement, Michael Sam went from being a hard-scrabble rags-to-riches story to an American pioneer, whether he wants the descriptive or not. Just last week, Sam announced to the public that he is gay, which would make him the first gay athlete on an NFL roster, once thought of as the final frontier of heterosexual masculinity. Sam would defy all stereotype and convention, a bruising tough guy from a grizzly background playing a game reserved for contract killers.
By virtually all accounts, Michael Sam the gay football player has been warmly received, from his teammates to fans to media to NFL players and officials. No one has suggested this would hurt his draft stock or make him less appealing to an NFL GM. In other works, Michael Sam can be commodified and objectified like every other player coming into the league, which in this case is a good thing. Any marginal personnel movement either way will be just that, marginal, and far less than the odd market value fluctuation of Tim Tebow, whose persona made an NFL roster long before his arm did.
This should be noted as progress, that we can debate if anyone cares at all. It's what happens when people move forward, which believe it or not, does happen over generations. Leaving political grandstanding aside, people evolve, even if politicians don't.
The story won't go away soon, even if there's less to the story than we might have thought. It will continue past the draft into training camp and Sam's inaugural season. It's what the analogy microscope is used for. And let's be honest, it makes for great press, which is probably why I'm writing this commentary right now. And don't kid yourself, a fickle American public can turn against Sam in less than a play count, if he doesn't perform or doesn't conform to our current conceptualization of what gay should look like in this country. It's safe to say he won't be allowed the flamboyant sexuality afforded straight NFL stars, where girlfriends are marketing tools as much as they are companions. Expect to hear much more, "what he does in his own time is his own business," much more than you hear for, say, Tom Brady, whose supermodel wife is part of his appeal.
In time, it’s likely we’ll care less. The 10th gay professional football player will be far less topical than the first, or even the second or third. At some point, a gay athlete may be no more a story than an African-American quarterback. Meaning it will still be noticed, but it won’t be notable.
And for this, we can thank sports for its context and visibility. The game of football, for all its failings, provides a platform for interaction and teamwork rarely encountered in American life. And it plays out on TV, on 24-hour media platforms. For all the rhetoric that athletes aren’t role models, in this case, they most certainly are. That goes for Michael Sam and the countless teammates who have already and will soon accept him as part of a functioning brotherhood. That’s a message that permeates traditional roadblocks, from high school locker rooms to boy scout groups to sports bars. Places where seminars and training and all other good intentions don’t work. All the places where people root for sports and the athletes that play them. And right now, it’s pretty easy to root for Michael Sam.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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