Tuesday, February 11, 2014

“Coming Out” Ahead of the NFL Draft is Risky but Worth It

              Here’s to University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam. Last season he was selected as a first-team All-American. A few days ago, Sam stated publicly he’s gay. It wasn’t his first admission of this fact; just the biggest. That is to say, the 24-year-old was only repeating to a broader audience what he had shared with teammates at the start of football season.

              The move sets the stage for the gridiron standout to reportedly become the first openly gay player in the NFL's history who is actively playing. He’s not drafted yet but the outlook is favorable, controversy aside.

              Here we go again. Yet another athlete comes out. This time the sport is professional football, perhaps the biggest media stage in America for a sports figure. It’s a big deal too because the implications are huge. It’s especially so when, not if, he signs with an NFL team. And the walls keep tumbling down.

              On that day Sam will be, at least for a time, the biggest name in professional sports. And that’s a good thing. The six-foot-two, 255 pound 24-year-old from Hitchcock, Texas was voted 2013 co-defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference. That makes him a promising draft pick. And he’s knocking at the door of a venerable institution that has witnessed its share of barrier-breaching events, from a social justice perspective.

              I vividly recall a time in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when the NFL locker room started being invaded by intrepid female news reporters. For the longest time they were unwanted. Banned. Something about them “not belonging”, and it being “for their own good”. Now it’s commonplace. Most nobody blinks an eye. I’m ashamed to admit I was on the wrong side of history on that one back then and learned my lesson.

              But this column isn’t about sexism. It’s not about homophobia either. Instead, it’s about a human being’s dignity to work in a job for which he’s qualified and not be discriminated against because of who he might love. It’s also about a person’s unalienable right to be who he is and not be oppressed and pressured to hide his identity.

              “I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet. 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,” said an anonymous NFL player personnel assistant to reporters at Sports Illustrated magazine.

              Anonymous, huh? Who’s in the closet now?

              Among the barriers related to the LGBTQ community, there are people who don’t understand and others who don’t want to understand. That’s tragic. Yet and still there are surely scores of closeted gay players already in the NFL and other sports, just as there are in churches and schools and other workplaces. They are “regular” folk who happen to be gay but hide it. Hide it for fear of persecution, ridicule or excommunication. Or termination – figuratively and literally.

              In a New York Times video interview, Sam said he came out when he did because a story was about to break and, as he put it, “I want to own my own truth.”

              It’s rather amazing when you think about it. For in coming out as he has, when he has – ahead of signing a contract and joining a team – he’s putting on the line his potential to live out the dream of playing professional football. He also is placing in jeopardy a whole lot of money and financial security. Yet something tells me Sam is a person willing to do just that. He is, to state it plainly, a man in full.

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