In an ideal world, the news that Michael Sam, an All-American college football player likely headed to the NFL, is gay would be treated with a shrug. Of course, there are gay men and women in professional sports, just as there have been gay astronauts, gay military officers and so on.
We’re not in an ideal world. Ending bigotry is a slow march, but it has accelerated in the past decade. Sam, 24, and his future NFL teammates are part of a generation in which same-sex marriage is increasingly a given (17 states and counting). The millennial generation (born after 1981) supports same-sex marriage by a 2-to-1 margin, according to the 2013 Pew Research Center poll below. The welcoming reaction from Sam’s Missouri football teammates (coach Gary Pinkel told CBS he was “proud” of Sam) is not an anomaly. It reflects changed politics.
Reaction to Sam’s coming out may focus on the one-third, as well as the older, less tolerant members of the generation running NFL franchises.
But the Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith, the Super Bowl MVP, reflects the ideal-world shrug, which I suspect that sentiment is more pervasive in the NFL than anyone knows. He tweeted:
There is no room for bigotry in American sports. It takes courage to change the culture.
— Malcolm Smith (@MalcSmitty) February 10, 2014
The NFL itself made a good showing of tolerance. “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.”
ESPN writer LZ Granderson writes, Michael Sam is not “a novelty.” He notes the history of out former NFL players, including ex-Husky David Kopay, who had dinner with Sam last night, and Wade Davis, who is advising Sam. That support will help.
And more importantly, Sam has talent. Undeniable, pro-level talent. The kind of talent that would make the prospect of him not being drafted, not being signed, not having his cleats laced up on Sundays perhaps the most blatant form of pop culture homophobia since Ellen DeGeneres was chased off of television in 1998.
Here’s hoping the Seahawks — with a strong unconventional coach and a urbane fan base in a state that just legalized gay marriage, and a city that just elected its first gay mayor — will give Sam a chance to lace them up. Judging by his highlight reel, Sam is a sack monster.