The NFL's Gay Jackie Robinson

Ben Jacobs
The NFL's Gay Jackie Robinson

In September 2014, the NFL will start the season as usual. There will be fireworks and jets flying over the stadiums.  But, when the players stand along the sidelines, silently mouthing the words to the Star Spangled Banner and waiting for the game to begin, something will be different. Almost certainly, at least one player will be openly gay.

 The NFL was founded in 1920 and it’s almost certain that gays have played in the league since its inception, when teams like the Canton Bulldogs faced off against the Dayton Triangles. But no active player has ever been open about his sexual orientation when Michael Sam, a star college player at the University of Missouri and NFL draft prospect, came out publically to the New York Times and ESPN that he is gay.

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 Sam, a 6’2”, 260-pound defensive end, was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All American in 2013.  Sam led Missouri to a win in the Cotton Bowl as it ended the season as the No. 5 college football team in the country. Sam told reporters Sunday that he had come out to his team in August, before the season began, and players on the team had supported Sam throughout. According to the New York Times, one player accompanied Sam to a gay pride event in St. Louis while others went to gay bars with the star defensive end.

However, with the NFL draft approaching and rumors swirling, Sam decided to come out to the world before the league holds its combine in February.

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In his interview with ESPN, Sam told Chris Connelly "I didn't realize how many people actually knew, and I was afraid that someone would tell or leak something out about me. I want to own my truth. No one else should tell my story but me."  

If Sam takes the field for a NFL team in 2014, he will become the first openly gay player in a major American team sport. Jason Collins, a free agent basketball center who spent much of his career with the New Jersey Nets, came out to Sports Illustrated in May but has yet to be signed by a team.  (Robbie Rogers, a midfielder for the Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer came out in 2013 after being released by the English team Leeds United).

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While reports have percolated in recent years about gay football players who are about to come out of the closet, it has not happened. NFL players have come out of the closet after retirement, however, including former Redskins running back Dave Kopay and Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Esera Tuaolo. Other NFL players were known to be gay during their careers but never publically acknowledged their sexual orientation, most famously Jerry Smith, a Pro Bowl tight end for the Washington Redskins who died of AIDS in 1986.

The NFL was supportive of Sam’s decision to come out. In a statement released Sunday, the league said, "We admire Michael Sam's honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014."

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Despite his college accolades, Sam is considered a mid-level prospect in the NFL, and was expected to be picked somewhere between the third and fifth rounds before Sunday’s news. The defensive end is undersized for his position and was considered a candidate to be converted to outside linebacker, a position that he had not played in college. However, players selected in those rounds almost invariably make NFL rosters and are expected to contribute in their first year, even if they do not come with all the hype of a first round pick.

But his announcement may hurt his stock in May’s draft. Many teams may be wary of the publicity that would come with drafting the first openly gay player in NFL history. While outright homophobia may not be a problem on some teams----ESPN analyst Jerome Bettis said that he thought 95% of players in NFL locker rooms would be fine with an openly gay teammate---the media frenzy likely to surround Sam could be a red flag in a football culture that is always wary of “distractions” of any kind. Then again, Sam’s sexuality did not seem to cause many distractions for his Missouri teammates.

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It’s too soon to know what impact this announcement will have on Sam’s pro career, which has yet to even start. But it will have a fundamental impact on American sports and culture. For decades, the potential consequences of a professional athlete in a major American team sport coming out as gay have been debated and agonized over in detail. Even when Jason Collins came out in May, he did so at the end of his career at a point when it was unclear if he would ever play again regardless of sexual orientation.

But as of Sunday, with Sam’s announcement, the debate won’t be theoretical. Barring unforeseen circumstances, he will be an NFL player in 2014 and, finally, there will be an openly gay player in the league when the season begins in September.

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