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Sam Gold | The Gold Standard

Out and NFL-bound: an odyssey

Published: Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Updated: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 09:02

Upon winning the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year award in college football’s grueling Southeastern Conference, he joined the company of NFL standouts Patrick Peterson, Eric Berry, Glenn Dorsey, Patrick Willis and Demeco Ryans. Standing 6’2” in a 260-pound frame, he ranks among the best defensive ends in the country. Until yesterday, he was slated for as high as the third round in the NFL draft in May. 

Michael Sam has three dead siblings, two incarcerated ones and a mother who embodied sacrifice to raise eight children. Yet somehow his being gay — as opposed to his predecessors’ sexuality being concealed until retirement — trumps that loaded history. After all, Sam is about to make history as the first openly gay player in the NFL. Even though scandals of some sort or another annually shake up the college football landscape prior to draft day, none has bewildered, disturbed and empowered the league to this degree. There is not a single openly gay athlete currently playing in America’s four major sports, the mere specter of which has elicited a wide range of responses. 

Chris Kluwe, the best punter in Minnesota Vikings history, cut his career short when he ruffled homophobic feathers within the organization as a vociferous advocate for gay rights. Super Bowl legend David Tyree, on the other hand, has crusaded for the other guys. (These two, having been headliners more often than most, represent diametric opposites, but this does not diminish — nor does justice to — the rampant homophobia endemic to the locker room.) 

Sam has made clear that he wanted to own the story, to be in control of its rapid dissemination to the American public. In doing so, he has initiated a chess match with a $9 billion-a-year mammoth, its 32 tributaries and the Richie Incognitos and Jonathan Martins of the world. At the very least, he has forced the NFL onto the defensive and perhaps even into actually upholding its non-discrimination policy. 

Last year, in the wake of the pre-draft combine, when players were questioned about their sexual orientation, the league agreed to display posters in locker rooms and train players to foster a more tolerant atmosphere. Imagine one of those players had come out: What kind of action would the NFL have taken then? 

It’s no longer a hypothetical. Michael Sam will be on an NFL roster come the fall, and his team — teammates, coaches and upper management — will cope with his sexual orientation; or not, in which case a watershed is on the horizon. 

He has already changed the tenor of the Missouri Tigers locker room, whose occupants hail predominantly from red states. It spells disaster for commissioner Goodell, who will have to contend with a guy who, by all accounts, has been a role model and leader — and an outspoken one to boot. 

Sam’s entry into the NFL — a sure thing at this point in time — will mark the most daunting crucible of his career, an unprecedented foray into a monolithic bastion of homophobia. But he has much less at stake than does an organization tethered by scant accountability, and whose culture still remains insular and mysterious. Once that dam breaks, not even the commissioner can wield the power enough to stanch the ensuing deluge. 

No matter what happens, Michael Sam cannot lose. Either he suffers at the hands of burly ignorance and exposes locker room culture and its concomitant intolerance, or he carves out niche for himself and chips away at institutionalized oppression. 

No matter what happens, Michael Sam’s could be the story of a generation.   

 

Sam is a junior who is majoring in religion. He can be reached at samuel_l.gold@tufts.edu 

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