Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Michael Sam: Darned if you do, darned if you don't

I've been reading quite a bit this week, despite profound lack of interest in sports, about Michael Sam, 24-year-old University of Missouri standout and now a candidate for the National Football League draft, who came out as gay during a recent interview with ESPN.

That's big news because there are no publicly gay athletes in the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League or Major League Baseball. And the general assumption seems to have been that players, coaches and fans are not mature enough to handle one, should he appear. 

Sam also chose to come out early in the draft process, and many pundits suggest that will lower his potential as a draft pick. On the other hand, another group of "experts" now suggests that the decision increased his value, not so much as a player, but as a poster boy for football franchises and business sponsors anxious to burnish their images as progressive and inclusive. Sort of a darned if you do, darned if you don't situation.

Sam, out to most of his family and also to his Missouri teammates before last year's season began, said only that he decided to speak out in order to control his own story in part because of rumors about his sexuality, which he has never worked that hard to conceal. 

None of Sam's Missouri teammates seemed to mind. According to The New York Times, Sam "had a stellar season as Missouri finished 12-2 and won the Cotton Bowl. He was a first-team all-American and was named the Associated Press defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, widely considered the top league in college football. Teammates voted him Missouri’s most valuable player."

The Times also reported, however, that several scouts at a January showcase game for seniors had asked Sam's agent, Joe Barkett, if the player had a girlfriend or if Barkett had seen him with women, perhaps circling around rumors about orientation.

I'm doubting NFL players will have much trouble with this, despite those like New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who said recently that he didn't think a gay teammate would be accepted in the locker room --- and revealed his own apparently paralyzing fear that a gay guy might see him naked.

I'm guessing, however, that a majority of athletes are younger, smarter and more adaptable than commentators, coaches and others sometimes give them credit for. 

Coaches might be another matter, since most are older --- still not exactly comfortable with the realities of 21st century life. And franchise officials, like the leaders of most establishment institutions, are secretly horrified of change --- of any sort. Most gay players have waited until retirement to come out, or kept that closet door firmly closed.

I'm guessing most fans will be supportive or indifferent, although there will be a hardcore group, predominately male, distressed that their locker room and playing field fantasies are being interfered with.

In any case, Sam is a brave young man and it will be interesting to see what happens.

I've been fantasizing this morning about the potential of women players next in the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League baseball. There's really no reason qualified candidates couldn't develop, since most of the stereotypes about the "weaker" sex involve male fantasies. Obviously most women are smaller and lighter and therefore at a disadvantage, but there are some great athletes and big bruisers, too, out there in that gender category. So stay tuned.

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