University of Missouri graduate and NFL defensive end prospect Michael Sam came out this past week. This is, ostensibly, a big deal.
It is apparently a big deal because in all likelihood, Sam will be drafted into the NFL this May and become the first active signed openly gay athlete in any of the Big Four North American sports leagues.
We might expect Sam’s experience in professional football to be a fascinating case study in the modern state of tolerance in sports. When he enters the NFL, some idiot fan will hurl a slur at him heck, black athletes everywhere are still dealing with racial invectives today. When he starts minicamp, he will go through the traditional rookie hazing regimen of being doused in involuntary ice baths and receiving hideous haircuts. One of Sam’s less welcoming teammates may go too far with a particular act of initiation, or more subtly, treat him with an uncomfortable lukewarmness throughout the season.
In any other line of work, we wouldn’t consider a coming-out story a bombshell. We wouldn’t painstakingly analyze every potential pitfall stemming from such a declaration; in 2014, being openly gay is more blasé than sensational. But we’re taught that male team sports are different, and that the locker room is a workplace like no other. It is the site of incredible camaraderie and lifelong connections, forged through teamwork as much as through crude humor, trash and playfully immature jocularity. But it’s also an environment that seemingly teeters on the edge of total fracture, with the slightest distraction threatening to collapse morale irreparably.
An inference that Sam’s sexual orientation would be incompatible with the locker room culture, however, relies on a pair of fallacious stereotypes. First is the unfair portrayal of an NFL locker room as a Wild West hotbed of insensitivity packed with callous meathead bullies. The reality of the situation is that the overwhelming majority of players today would welcome a gay teammate, many vocally so. If anything, a teammate who needlessly harasses a productive teammate would be subject to the worst flak from his peers.
Second, an assumption that Sam is inherently not cut out for the NFL rests on a twisted notion that a gay athlete would be too passive and play too soft to be effective. Play soft? Sam’s YouTube highlights are replete with clips of him practically taking the heads off of opposing quarterbacks. Passive? Sam has been repeatedly described as one of the loudest and most outgoing players on Mizzou’s team. He even did his post-sack celebration dance after he got his diploma. At his core, Sam is just like every other football player; his announcement of his sexual orientation is, in essence, no big deal.
Sadly, some of the people pushing this narrative of incompatibility are NFL personnel executives who caution against the media circus Sam’s drafting could bring to a team, along with the “[chemical] imbalance” it would cause inside the locker room.
Nevermind that the supposedly chemically imbalanced Missouri football team to whom Sam came out to last year went 12-2 and won a division in the best collegiate football conference in the country. We are to believe that a league in which three teams have signed Tim Tebow to a contract now considers media circuses anathema. We are to believe that a league where an owner can assign bodyguards to tail his star wide receiver 24/7 cannot handle even the slightest distraction. We are to believe that although one of the best cornerbacks in the game was drafted after being dismissed for an entire year in college because of (ahem) chemical imbalances, Sam’s sexual orientation would make him just too big a risk.
It’s entirely possible that Sam, as a mid-round prospect, slips in the draft because of his physical size and the uncertain translation of his production to the professional game — you know, typical boring X’s and O’s stuff. If Sam is passed over, however, just because of an exec’s queasiness over his sexual orientation, it will mark a step backward for our society and a failure to progress to a world where, finally, Sam’s can be treated like no big deal.
Akshat Shekhar is a Wharton sophomore from Boston. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.