3 reasons why Michael Sam coming out as gay is a huge deal for the NFL

Yesterday, University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, a 1st-team All-American and Associated Press Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year, publicly announced that he is gay.


Sam’s announcement puts him in position to become the NFL’s first openly gay player, and comes during the run-up to the NFL’s scouting combine on February 19th. As teams head into the offseason to evaluate their needs and the talent available, Sam is considered to be a solid prospect, currently ranked as the 9th-best defensive end and the 90th-best overall prospect, which would make him a 3rd-round selection, according to CBS’ mock draft standings.

It’s hard to overstate how big of a deal this is, but here are a few reasons why Sam’s announcement should put any doubts about whether or not the NFL is ready for a gay player to bed:

Michael Sam is a leader, not a distraction

While Sam publicly came out recently, he came out to his teammates before the season began. Per the New York Times:

Coaches at the University of Missouri divided players into small groups at a preseason football practice last year for a team-building exercise. One by one, players were asked to talk about themselves — where they grew up, why they chose Missouri and what others might not know about them.

As Michael Sam, a defensive lineman, began to speak, he balled up a piece of paper in his hands. “I’m gay,” he said.

For the entire season, Sam’s teammates knew he was gay and went about their business winning games. While former New York Jets head coach Herman Edwards was quick to assert that having a gay player would bring “baggage to the locker room” and serve as a distraction detrimental to the success of any potential new team, Sam’s Tigers are coming off of arguably the best season in school history, going 12-2 and winning the Cotton Bowl. For his part, Sam led the Southeastern Conference, considered the nation’s most competitive conference, with 11.5 sacks. He added an additional 19 tackles for loss. At the end of the season, his teammates voted him team MVP.

Sam told the Times that he only decided to make a public announcement after rumors began to emerge that were getting in the way of his scouting process, telling ESPN that he wanted to “make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it.” According to Sam’s agent, scouts were asking whether or not Sam had a girlfriend or had been seen with women before they would ask about Sam’s work ethic or playing ability. In other words, Sam’s sexual orientation only became a distraction because other people decided that it should be. He just went out and played.

Michael Sam does not fit the NFL’s gay stereotype

Following his announcement, another unnamed NFL executive told Sports Illustrated that they did not feel the NFL was ready for an openly-gay player, saying “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.”

Excuse me, do you mean to tell me that this guy isn’t a man’s man?


Image courtesy of Creative Commons

At 6’3″ and 260 pounds of absolute doom, Michael Sam is an imposing presence on a football field. Whether he stays at defensive end or moves to linebacker after being drafted (scouts say that he is a little undersized for a defensive end), most NFL insiders seem to have assumed that the first openly gay player would play one of the “weaker” positions like kicker or punter. You know, the ones that can be explained away.

If you’re wondering why it took so long for rumors to emerge that he was gay after coming out to his teammates during the preseason last summer, it’s because no one thought to ask. Everyone simply assumed that someone as badass as Sam would be straight. As Sam told the Times:

If someone on the street would have asked me, “Hey, Mike, I heard you were gay; is that true?” I would have said yes. I guess they don’t want to ask a 6-3, 260-pound defensive lineman if he was gay or not.

There’s a grain of truth in the unnamed NFL executive’s statement that the NFL is a “man’s-man’s” game: professional football players are considered the most macho athletes we have. And if one (or a few) of them happen to be gay and they run just as fast, hit just as hard and play coverage just as well as their straight counterparts (read: are “man’s men”), then it’s hard to take anyone seriously when they say that members of the LGBT community can’t do anything else.

If and when Michael Sam underperforms in the draft, the NFL will take a massive PR hit

The NFL was quick to come out in support of Sam, releasing a statement reading:

We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.

// //


But while the league as a whole recognizes that homophobia has become a bad business practice, those involved with individual teams who actually make drafting decisions were not so politically correct. NFL insiders are unanimously saying that Sam’s announcement has hurt his draft prospects. This means that we now have the opportunity for a natural experiment of sorts, albeit an imperfect one. While there are still just under three months between now and draft day, if Sam’s draft stock falls significantly between now and then, the “9th-best defensive end” benchmark set yesterday will be used as a measuring stick. And regardless of how Sam performs in the scouting combine, it will be difficult not to compare where Sam gets drafted to his standing in the mock draft on February 9, 2014.

Say Michael Sam is the 15th defensive end drafted instead of the ninth, dropping him into the 5th or 6th round instead of the 3rd and therefore significantly lowering the value of his initial contract, “Being Gay Just Cost Michael Sam $___” will be all too easy of a story to write. In essence, while reports of homophobia in the NFL are rampant but difficult to substantiate, Sam’s announcement will make it possible to quantify homophobia in the NFL, and this will be a PR nightmare for the league.

So, come May, if you’ve got a favorite NFL team and they pass on Michael Sam in the draft (especially if your team could use a linebacker or defensive end), you should let them know that they hurt their chances of winning and have therefore lost your respect by picking an inferior player because the qualified guy happened to be gay. Homophobia is already a bad sports decision; let them know that it’s a bad business decision, too.

At the time of writing, 65 percent of respondents to an unscientific ESPN SportsNation poll (the one they’ll cite on TV over and over today) indicated that they think the NFL is ready for an openly gay player. The only individual states that answered “no” were Arkansas and Wyoming (both by slim 48-52 margins), neither of which has an NFL team. In other words, football fans – the people who fill the stands and watch the games on TV – are totally fine with Michael Sam playing in the NFL. It’s time the NFL’s teams got on board.

In Sam’s words, “only good things are going to come from this.”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2Vld8duOik&w=560&h=315]

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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46 Responses to “3 reasons why Michael Sam coming out as gay is a huge deal for the NFL”

  1. dcinsider says:

    Oh Aaron, the guy who really really likes girls. Yeah, he’s not gay. Cute roomie though. I’m sure he needed the roommate to help with the bills, so nothing funny going on there.

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  3. flocculent says:

    well said.

  4. dcinsider says:

    Yeah let’s get HRC right on this. Perhaps they can have a cocktail party?

  5. dcinsider says:

    Who is it?

  6. Benz981 says:

    Yes, but I think there is a different between the secretive wink-and-nod “code of silence” knowledge of gay player(s), who would never own their identity publicly, versus somebody who is out, acknowledges it, wouldn’t have a problem mentioning their boyfriend in casual conversation, etc. The former cloaked in shame and has an aura of less-than… “yea, I gotta sneak away to do my scandalous private business”… that sort of thing. It’s not living authentically, and in my view not really analogous to the current situation.

  7. The_Fixer says:

    Yes, it would help for that certain superstar quarterback to come out.

    Although he recently said “I’m not gay. I like girls.”

    However, that does not mean that he’s straight (he could be bi) or that he’s not lying.

    There’s a lot of supporting evidence that he at least has had a relationship with a guy. And he has been seen in restaraurants in his playing city (closed restaurants, for privacy) in a date context with guys.

    I have friends who work in the restaurant industry who clued me in on this, and they have no reason to make this up or lie about it. I believe them. I wish he would come out.

  8. The_Fixer says:

    Yes, but…

    Here’s a high-profile guy entering a high-profile sport. A high-profile sport that, in the U.S., screams “masculinity.” If we can make an inroad here by having a publicly out player work as any other player in the league, it would do a lot to silence those who think of us as “lesser.”

    Yeah, I know that there are a lot of more important issues and we shouldn’t ignore them. However, I think that we can change a lot of opinions, and therefore, make some progress with other issues by showing that we’re the same as everybody else.

    Like it or not, NFL Football is a big thing. Making an inroad into it can change a lot of hearts and minds.

  9. Ninong says:

    I sure hope Jerry Jones isn’t interested because Dallas is not where I would want to go if I were Mike Sam.

  10. judybrowni says:

    Don’t give a crap about football, but good on him for coming out.

    And he’s hot!

  11. Tone says:

    Once upon a time being a person of color hurt a kid’s draft chances. Then the color barrier was broken. Times change, and they will change again. Another old prejudice is falling into the dustbin of history, and it’s about time.

    Michael Sam is a courageous young man who is wise beyond his years. He will do fine.

  12. flocculent says:

    Don’t you think maybe there are more important issues for HRC to address right now? Perspective, people, perspective.

  13. flocculent says:

    Reason #4, it distracts from the TBI kerfuffle. One can market a gay player a lot easier than a brain damaged ex-player. Don’t expect the likes of Jerry Jones to hop on the back end of the LGBT train without an utter lack of options dealing with a much bigger problem.

  14. Ninong says:

    Given the fact that his sexual orientation was widely known, I think he did the smart thing by coming out now. Perhaps there are some teams that were willing to draft him as long as he stayed in the closet that are no longer interested but that sort of situation would have been bad for him anyway.

    Let’s hope he is drafted by a team playing in a liberal city and not some Deep South team, where his presence would have been a distraction because the local wing-nuts would have made it one.
    I can just hear the Mike Huckabee types saying he’s not an appropriate role model for young people. Blah, blah, blah!

    What would help right about now would be for a certain superstar quarterback to finally come out. I thought he was coming out several months ago but he backed out. If he doesn’t come out, he might be outed.

    Back in the early 1980’s, when Joe Montana was leading the Niners to glory, Herb Caen had more than a few mentions of a certain 49ers defensive star player who was a regular at a certain Castro Street gay bar. Back then Dave Kopay was out but that was after he finished playing. No active player was out and everybody understood that it wouldn’t have been a wise career move to publicly come out.

    I wonder how many gay players in the NFL are actually known to their teammates right now? Brendon won’t say except that he expected four of them to come out but then nothing happened, allegedly because the QB superstar backed out.

  15. magster says:


  16. JLSR says:

    Pretty words, but let’s hope they put their money where their mouths are.

  17. CPT_Doom says:

    I think you’re right, and I think right now a whole bunch of teams with smart coaches are trying to figure out exactly how far he’ll fall, so they’ll know exactly when to take him in the draft. There is a real science to these things, after all.

  18. magster says:

    In my corner of the world, the politically very conservative GM of the Broncos, John Elway:

    “I applaud Michael Sam and wish him the very best as he continues the pursuit of his NFL dream,” Elway told ABC 7 News in a statement.
    “As we look toward the combine and the draft, we will evaluate Michael
    just like any other draft prospect-on the basis of his ability,
    character and NFL potential. His announcement will have no effect on how
    we see him as a football player.

    “Having spent 16 years in an
    NFL locker room, the bottom line is that it’s about treating others with
    respect and earning that respect. By all indications, it appears
    Michael has done just that throughout his football career.”

  19. Tom in Lazybrook says:

    If he slips past the third round, I think that should be a discussion to be brought to the table the next time a NFL team wants the taxpayers to subsidize a new stadium or stadium improvements. Remember, Gays do matter politically in many of the cities that host NFL teams. And at times we can have leverage.

  20. tubi11 says:

    Just to add further detail, the names stand for the Strongside LB, Weakside LB and, Middle LB. More details here: http://football.about.com/od/positionprofiles/a/Linebacker.htm
    In case anyone is really interested.

  21. chris10858 says:

    I think its time to get folks like the HRC and our allies in Congress to apply enormous pressure on the NFL to make sure he’s picked up even earlier than the 9th round. We also need to find out if those scouts asking about his sexuality come from states and cities which ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. We need to get that line of questioning stopped by scouts and other football execs.

    Im sure we have allies in Congress who could leverage the NFLs tax-exempt status to coerce a favorable outcome for the kid. We need to support and watch out for this kid both for his sake as well as those other guys and gals who are in high school or college and are afraid to come out.

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  23. magster says:

    Did you all know that the 1993 Houston Oilers already accepted 2 gay players on its team and the world didn’t end?


  24. Hue-Man says:

    If he replicates the path of Jackie Robinson who played for the Montreal Royals before joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, he could start in the Canadian Football League – for no money: “Starters and CFL superstars may expect to usually earn between $60,000 and $120,000 Canadian, according to DarrenBarefoot.com.” http://www.ehow.com/info_7916967_average-salary-cfl-player.html

  25. magster says:

    The more I consider this, the more I think Mike Sam will be drafted no worse/later than one round after the time that he otherwise would be. If Sam is really deserving of a high draft choice, the farther he falls in the draft, the more one of the 32 teams is going to make a risk/reward calculation and draft him. The league is just too competitive for a talented player to not have some team take him. Teams pick up troubled but hugely talented players facing suspension or jail all the time. Taking a gay player is low risk in comparison (unless the NFL expanded into Russia). Maybe a handful of teams would be too bigoted to take a chance, but not all 32 teams.

  26. Hue-Man says:

    “Nowhere did Sam slip further and faster down the rankings than he did at CBS Sports’ NFLDraftScout.com, overseen by Rob Rang. He was the 10th-ranked defensive end on Sunday night. On Monday morning, the site had him as the 14th-ranked defensive end. The most noticeable fall came on the overall player rankings at CBS, where Sam went from 90th in the hours after he came out on Sunday night to 160th on Monday morning.” http://www.towleroad.com/2014/02/michelle-obama-tweets-support-to-michael-sam-for-coming-out.html

    “…professional football players are considered the most macho athletes we have.”

    I think of the elephant frightened by the appearance of a mouse when I hear of these “macho” athletes fear of showering beside a fellow team-mate. Not only does it speak to their personal insecurities, it’s obvious it’s already happened (they just didn’t know).

  27. SkippyFlipjack says:

    Lots of players succeed in college but aren’t considered right for the pro game. This guy has apparently been evaluated all over the place, from 3d to 7th round, but all estimates (pre-announcement) had him being drafted.

  28. magster says:

    This joke has 25 uprates on the football blog I read…. :(

  29. magster says:

    I hope, for this guy’s sake, that other NFL players come out too. The media scrutiny on Sam would be helpfully diluted if the focus isn’t just on him and his one team, but on say 5 teams, or 10 or more.

  30. jomicur says:

    Yep. Terrific turn of phrase.

  31. HolyMoly says:

    I suppose that’s the beauty of the situation. Most of the standard anti-gay excuses are pretty much debunked before he even gets on a team. Locker room cohesion? Check. On-the-field performance? Check.

    But if he gets on a team that winds up having a losing season, if he misses a few tackles here and there, don’t be surprised if someone, somewhere, somehow will blame it on his being gay or the effects his “gayness” has on the team.

    I don’t think in the long run that the NFL itself will be a problem — I think the time is fast coming where they realize that gay athletes are here to stay, if they haven’t realized it already. I’m talking more about your right-leaning sports writers. I’m talking about the Rush Limbaughs and Pat Robertsons of the world.

  32. Bose says:

    Isn’t it time for the NFL to publicly, affirmatively press teams that the NFL will be an open place, and strongly repudiate and redirect the anonymous comments to SI?

  33. magster says:

    I don’t see how a guy with 11 sacks and 19 tackles for loss on the # 5 ranked college team doesn’t get a fair shot at making one of the 32 teams. Seattle showed that a good defense can beat the “best offense in NFL history” and decisively beat them.

    Speaking of the Broncos, don’t be surprised to see Sam wearing orange and blue next year. Denver’s end rushers whether at outside LB or DE are Von Miller (torn ACL), Robert Ayers (free agent semi first round bust) Derek Wolfe (missed last 8 games due to mystery illness that causes seizures and drastic weight loss), and Shaun Phillips (another free agent). Denver is very thin at the DE/edge rush position. It would be interesting to see how the famously politically conservative Peyton Manning would respond to the Broncos drafting of Mike Sam (I strongly suspect Manning would support him, which would shut up a lot of people).

  34. RexTIII says:

    It’s great to see positive media coverage on this remarkable young man, obviously a very talented athlete. His personal integrity, front and center in the only way he is willing to live his life, unwilling to waste time behind a closet door. The negative comments, are nothing new, from the same points of uneducated, ill informed, ignorant thugs, views all of which are based on a variety of religions, even though many don’t practice any of them. Anyone who goes to the ‘Locker Room’ area, as some type of a problem, knows nothing about reality in the way everyone already lives their lives, gay, straight, closeted, out, whatever. We’re all – already in the locker rooms together, we’ve been in the locker rooms together since we were all young, as we grow older, whether it be sport locker rooms, gym locker rooms, country club locker rooms, military locker rooms. Naked men are naked men, Gay ‘Out’ Naked Men in a locker room are in the locker room for the same reason everyone else is in the locker room, just like they were yesterday when they were in the ‘Closet.’ Such bullshit, this tired noise. Congratulations to Michael Sam, his pursuit of education, his excellence in Sport & Team Spirit, and his integrity as a Citizen.

  35. SkippyFlipjack says:

    I think Herm Edwards is letting his homophobia show but it’s also inaccurate to quote him as saying that ‘having a gay player would bring “baggage to the locker room”‘. He was actually describing the mindset of NFL execs evaluating for the draft.

  36. HolyMoly says:

    It’s about time a (potential) NFL player has had the courage to say they’re gay. Actually, what he’s done is courage squared — he doesn’t have the job yet, and he could be risking his potential for a career in the NFL. Although I couldn’t prove it, I have a sneaking suspicion that there already ARE gay professional football players. Maybe Sam’s coming out will give a little nudge to those who have already established their careers and safely proven their value as professional athletes.

    If he gets drafted, though, he’d better hope that he plays a perfect game, EVERY game. One bad day, one missed tackle, and you can expect the sports media to be twice as critical of his performance as they would be if it was any other player. Much like the double standard that persists regarding women’s performance in professional or political circles.

  37. FLL says:

    It’s interesting that you mention the complaints about a gay NFL player not being a “man’s man.” I think people making that complaint are misrepresenting themselves because the religiously based homophobia that the Christian churches have been supporting for the last 1600 years is aimed at 100% of the male population. Christian bigots hate Michael Sam as much as they hate Richard Simmons. Recently, I found some supporting evidence for my opinion from an article in Smithsonian Magazine online. The article describes a study from the University of British Columbia that shows how having a Gay-Straight Alliance in British Columbia high schools reduces the risk of suicide at an equal rate for both gay boys and straight boys. The link to the article is here. Here is an excerpt:

    The study looked at data gathered in 2008 across the province of British Columbia. Overall, 21,708 students from grades 8 to 12 were represented. In schools with GSAs the odds of suicidal thoughts were cut in half for lesbians, gays and bisexuals. And heterosexual boys were half as likely to attempt suicide.

    OK, fundamentalist Xtians, now tell me who your religious hate and taboos are aimed at. Ahem.

  38. magster says:

    The 3 linebacker positions in a 4-3 defense are referred to as the “Mike”, the “Will” and the “Sam”. When you hear a QB yelling “56 is the Mike” before the snap, he’s referring to the linebacker the offensive linemen have to be most aware of in their protection scheme.

  39. emjayay says:


  40. Indigo says:

    I agree with your point and I’m going to appropriate the expression jesus-mongering because it tells it the way it is.

  41. Indigo says:

    I agree. This is a big deal.

  42. nicho says:

    Personally, I think all this over-the-top hyper-Christian posturing crap “brings baggage to the locker room.” The in-your-face Jesus mongering has become very off-putting in sports in general.

  43. magster says:

    I think an important thing that is being overlooked is the fact that if Mike Sam’s middle name is Will, he has the perfect linebacker name.

  44. S1AMER says:

    Not just for the NFL, but for all those “manly” sports and the “manly men” who are their target audience in stadia and on TV.

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