Neuendorf: Michael Sam breaks the huddle with coming out


Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Fans flock senior defensive end Michael Sam as he carries his souvenir [a rock from the rock ‘M’ at Memorial Stadium] after the win over Texas A&M.

Zachary Neuendorf

At 255 pounds and 6 foot 2 inches, Michael Sam shook sports’ status quo by announcing he was gay on “Outside the Lines”— a coincidentally-titled ESPN program.

Sam, 24, is a defensive lineman at Mizzou who is predicted to make the third-round draft picks for the NFL. This would mean Sam is the first publicly gay athlete playing in any of the three major American sports leagues: NFL, MLB or NBA. Many gay athletes have indeed played, but not until years after their careers ended — if ever — did they find the footing to come out.

No doubt, this has potential to be an even more historical moment for equality than it already is. Sam has brazenly taken the leap to destigmatize the hetero-macho norm and “straight only” attitude flowing without repercussion through the dominant sports. But being drafted to one of the 32 NFL teams would thrust gay equality in the most unexpected places and begin a damnation of stereotyping that the world needs. Plus, whatever team does choose him will be highly regarded for their advocacy and will be lucky to have gained a skillful and courageous player.

Sam’s decision to come out before his pro-jersey was set in stone was risky, forcing the teams to face their potential prejudices head on. He bravely took the first move and now his future in the NFL rests on the heads of the teams, but with the all of America watching intently. And it is not as if Sam’s credentials are out of order. While at Missouri, the Tigers were ranked fifth in the nation and went 12-2 in the Southeastern conference. In addition, Sam was named an All-American defensive lineman. So, if no team decides to pick him up, it can be boiled down to a nasty bit of bigotry.

Various stereotypes work against Sam’s favor, particularly the supposed distraction his sexual orientation will cause amongst the other players who are only comfortable with hyper-masculinity. A majority of the nonsensical worry sprouts from the concern over locker room behavior. Won’t a gay player contaminate the macho environment and throw off the mojo of all the players, resulting in poor performance on the field?

This is not the case as exhibited by Sam’s current team, who became aware of Sam’s sexual orientation this past August, and rightly, it was treated as no big deal. If this college team can exhume acceptance in a culture thereto deprived of it, an NFL team can follow suit. Easily my favorite detail about this story is how Sam occasionally took a few of his straight teammates to gay clubs and a pride parade. The Missouri Tigers are a microcosm of what the future of athletics should and could look like, placing camaraderie above sexuality.

His coming out was more about honesty than football: “I want to own my truth,” he says in the interview. Sam does not wish to be a gay icon or strictly remembered for being the gay athlete, but rather wishes to be defined as “a great person having great character.” On whether or not this announcement should affect his prospects, he hopes not. To him, it is all about his passion for the game and the determination to achieve his dream — a classic yearning for athletes and dreamers alike.

Of course, this act of progress is heartwarming and victorious, but it juxtaposes the ongoing catastrophe in Russia. I believe it would be an injustice to equality to mention the beautiful freedom of our citizens without addressing the brutal and sadistic consequences one would face in a similar situation if placed on the other side of the planet. Here, Sam is applauded and rallied for, but in Russia, he would be arrested and condemned by the government. And there are hundreds of people like Sam to whom extreme discrimination is happening to, and that is an unacceptable atrocity against humanity. An opportunity like this forces us to face on one hand our capability for goodness and on the other, the bestial realities. The journey from point A to point B is where the world must focus.

It is unclear whether or not Sam’s announcement was designed to combat the media storm of the Olympics and Russia’s malfunctions, but it is a gleaming-with-hope coincidence. If Sam does obtain his rightfully earned spot in the League, not only will he be shattering the status quo, he will also be determining a slew of people’s new favorite football team, including myself. If a single person can make me an admirer of football, then anything is possible.

Good luck and thank you, Michael Sam.