Full Disclosure: I am huge sports fan. In this order I root for BYU Basketball, New York Yankees, Chicago Bulls, BYU Football, and the Chicago Bears. While I am quite passionate, it does not take long for me to move on after a tough loss. I have been frequently been known to make fun of the National League, but this I assure you is always in jest.
“With the 249th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, the St. Louis Rams select Michael Sam, defensive end Missouri.” Cheers and a standing ovation were heard and seen throughout Radio City Musical Hall. With those words Michael Sam became the first active openly gay player in the NFL and the second active athlete from the North American “Big 4,” Jason Collins being the first in the NBA. There is no doubt that this was a huge step forward for gay athletes in North America.
In time, Sam’s selection will hopefully remove some of the negative parts of the stereotypical male locker room dynamic. For those who have not been on a traditional team sport (I did cross country and golf), locker room interactions can be a foreign concept. The perception that locker rooms are full of cocky alpha males with occasional homophobic and/or racist remarks probably has a lot of truth to it, but is likely overblown. The optimist hopes that the majority of mean spirited comments are done out of ignorance, not hatred. Sam will help more male athletes gain the courage required to come out to friends and teammates. It is clear that Sam took a huge step forward for gay athletes in North America.
The average fan perspective is significantly different. It is highly unlikely that this will change fan mentality at all. As Jon Stewart as pointed out many many times, fans (and executives) have shown they are willingly to root for any player on their team, regardless of what distraction may exist. It is for this reason that many fans do not care if Sam, or any player for that matter, is gay. Of course, bigots and idiots will always exist, especially online, but the average fan couldn’t care less. To prove this point, consider Lebron James and Kevin Durant, the consensus two best players in the NBA. If James and Durant announced they were gay (they’re not), would Heat and Thunder fans suddenly start booing them at home games? Would executives immediately trade them to remove the distraction from the team? Of course not. Even teammates ultimately would not care. As Herm Edwards, former NFL coach, once said “you play to win the game.” Removing a top two player greatly decreases the chances of winning the game.
Sam’s career is just getting started, but there is very little chance that he will be booed for his sexual orientation. In fact, it is clear that Sam’s Missouri teammates were supportive. He came out to his teammates in August 2013 and with no gag order from Sam, not a single player leaked the story to the press. Sam’s example and his supportive teammates should show gay athletes that coming out may not be as challenging as previously thought.
Finally, there have been some that have criticized NFL teams for letting Michael Sam, SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, drop all the way to the seventh round. After his senior year, Sam was projected to be a fourth round draft pick. Nate Silver showed projected fourth round linebackers only have a 50-50 chance of being drafted at all. At no point has Sam ever been projected to be a franchise player. It could happen, but it is highly unlikely. At 6’2” 261 lbs, Sam is highly undersized as a defensive end. In order to make a roster he will have to switch outside linebacker. His 4.91 40 yard dash absolutely killed his chances of moving up in the draft. Significantly dropping in the draft happens to players every single year. Cody Hoffman, wide receiver from BYU and once considered to be a fourth round selection, did not hear his name called on Draft Day due to his slow 40 yard time. Some college stars simply do not translate well to the pros.
As a political junkie, I am very interested to see what impact Sam has on gay youth athletes. There is the possibility that he could inspire gay football players in the same way Danny Ainge and Jimmer Fredette motivated Latter-day Saint basketball players. As a straight BYU alum that cheers for the Chicago Bears, I will not pay much attention to Sam’s career, but it is has nothing to do with his orientation. Unless you are a fan of the St. Louis Rams or are a Missouri alum, even the most avid NFL fan will not religiously follow a seventh round draft pick. If the day ever comes that Michael Sam sacks Aaron Rodgers at Soldier Field in Chicago, I assure you I will be the first off my seat at home yelling “way to go Sam!”