In the organization’s 94 years of existence, the NFL has seen players of high profile and low profiles come and go. Throughout the years, we have seen many athletes of all sizes prevail and plummet under dangerous conditions leaving their mark on the sport in some way, shape or form, but the question remains to be seen: Is the NFL ready for the first openly gay football player? Missouri Tiger’s defensive end, Michael Sam could possibly serve as the answer to that very question as he attempts make history when he enters the upcoming 2014 NFL Draft this May.
The NFL is no stranger to diversity. Men of different race, persona, and ethnicity have all played together in unity season after season. The NFL has faced adversity before and they have done so quite mannerly and appropriately. However, since the federal government’s acknowledgement and enactment of gay marriage, highly unexpected events have transitioned into every facet of entertainment media including professional sports. The Walt Disney Company recently approved the first openly gay couple to appear on its network program, Good Luck Charlie in which the family situational comedy took the liberty of introducing the first onscreen lesbian pair, Susan and Cheryl. Historically, the Disney studio looks to dodge controversy, but instead the “happiest place on Earth” decided to remodel themselves by further examining their disparate market which was originally Christian-oriented and adjusted to the times. Even Hollywood didn’t hesitate to greenlight several big-budget productions centered around gay characters in 2014 such as “Date and Switch” and Ira Sachs’ “Love Is Strange.” Not long ago, Hollywood actor, Jared Leto, won his very first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of transvestite prostitute, Rayon, in “Dallas Buyers Club” although Tom Hanks previously characterized the first realistic homosexual being as lawyer, Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia. Just from these examples alone, it’s highly evident that the gay community is no longer hesitant nor gun-shy to express who they are and what they stand for. United States President Barack Obama gave the community hope that gay and lesbian rights were to be immediately addressed upon entering his second term in office. Thus far the following has transpired to the surprise and shock of many especially the news of Michael Sam enlisting in the 2014 NFL Draft. But, should commissioner Roger Goodell and the league be worried about Sam’s baggage and the media attention that has ensued him?
Well, yes and no. According to physical and mental tests conducted by NFL personnel directors, Sam had notable character issues upon his initial entry into the NFL Combine, some in which inspired him to “come out” to his teammates at Missouri. Born January 7, 1990, Sam was the seventh of eight children belonging to JoAnn and Michael Sam, Sr. During his lethargic youth, Sam faced many hardships within his household that, to this day, have left a deep impact on his life. Some of these struggles were tolerable for Sam while others were plainly unspeakable. In retrospect, Sam witnessed his parents separate, his younger sister pass away during infancy, he watched one of his older brothers die from a gunshot wound, another brother was filed as a missing person since 1998, and his other two brothers both imprisoned. At one point in his childhood, Sam lived in his mother’s car in an attempt to avoid the internal household conflict that afflicted him. Sam even threatened his own well-being and reputation when he was accidentally maced by police officers who were arresting one of his brothers. In the grand scheme, Sam’s inferior past could haunt him and most likely bedevil the NFL if the right precautions aren’t taken.
Currently, the NFL is embroiled in an ugly investigation regarding the Miami Dolphins cancerous locker room in pertinence to offensive tackle, Jonathan Martin. The second-year veteran claimed he was a victim of bullying after being harassed by teammates, Richie Incognito and Mike Pouncey who both played ring-leading roles in the locker room scandal. Several members of the Dolphins training staff were also terminated after reports of staff involvement and misconduct began to develop. The news of Sam’s flamboyant sexuality constitutes as a distraction for the league that already has their hands tied with mandating locker room ethics, strengthening its substance abuse policy, and delegating prohibition in congruity to the use of the N-word. Is this the kind of environment an organization wants to develop their rookie especially when bullying and hazing has become more than a commonality? Sam is an openly gay athlete with an emotional past which is bound to raise eyebrows or tension in the locker room.
While he has be supported by many of his peers, Sam will soon discover that coming out to his teammates in Missouri was only a walk in the park in transition to the NFL. He has already allured a media circus in Missouri and the NFL headquarters on Park Avenue in New York and will surely leave Radio City Hall a mess on May 8. This positive and negative exposure is principally something the NFL wants to avoid and if Sam were to bottle his emotions prior to his declaration into the draft, his chances of signing with one of the leagues 32 clubs would be greater. Aside from his family history, something with Sam doesn’t quite add up. Since the beginning of his college tenure at Missouri, not once did Sam reveal his sexual orientation until the end of his senior year in 2013. Upon entering the NFL Draft, he finally addressed his open sexuality to the masses. Why did Sam wait until the NFL Combine to release such a controversial statement? Maybe he wasn’t ready to tell the media at the time. My assumption leans towards the avenue of attracting attention which is highly logical given that most professional athletes typically embellish media enthrallment. “He’s not going to get drafted where he thinks he should,” an NFL general manager who spoke to Peter King of Sports Illustrated anonymously said. “The question you will ask yourself, knowing your team, is, ‘How will drafting him affect your locker room?’ And I am sorry to say where we are at this point in time, I think it’s going to affect most locker rooms. A lot of guys will be uncomfortable. Ten years from now, fine. But today, I think being openly gay is a factor in the locker room.” Sam’s sexuality isn’t something he was born with but it is certainly a trait he doesn’t plan to dispose. Unlike professional athletes such as Jackie Robinson who had difficulty surviving in the segregated unsportsmanlike environment generated by figures such as former Philadelphia Phillies manager, Ben Chapman, Sam’s case is unique because he had the ability to stand above calamity by simply keeping his mouth shut. Robinson on the other hand found that the challenge lied within the color of his skin mainly due to the fact that he was the second major-league African American baseball player in a sport that was predominately white for the past 60 years. Had Sam been drafted and signed by one of the NFL’s 32 franchises without the slightest bit of exposure none of this negative publicity would have erupted out of pure homophobia and hatred.
An NFL assistant coach called Sam’s decision “not a smart move,” as he later explained that it could “legitimately affects his potential earnings.” “You shouldn’t have to live your life in secrecy,” the anonymous assistant coach said in an interview with CNN, “but do you really want to be the top of the conversation for everything without ever having played a down in this league?” The assistant coach said that the decision to draft Sam will ultimately rest on a franchise’s level of comfort in possibly disrupting the dynamic of the locker room. “There are guys in locker rooms that maturity-wise cannot handle it or deal with the thought of that,” the anonymous assistant coach said. “There’s nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of the locker room. If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it? It’s going to be a big distraction. That’s the reality. It shouldn’t be, but it will be.” To establish further clarity, this is not a witch hunt in an attempt to drive homosexual athletes out of professional sports and this certainly is not a call for a mock trial to be held further questioning Sam’s sexuality. This newly-found evidence only widens the large spectrum connoting that Sam will not benefit nor inspire the sport. Sam will not change his perspective or philosophy and that is perfectly fine, but he will learn soon enough that his recent statement may prevent him from salvaging a long successful career in the NFL.
Drew Mattiola is a third-year student majoring in communication studies. He can be reached at RM814408@wcupa.edu.