Last month, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam announced that he is gay. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Last year, an NBA player, Jason Collins, announced that he was gay too. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated.
I have been telling people I am gay for the past 30 years and I can't even get a date on Grindr. But I do remember what it was like being a gay athlete in the homophobic world of very straight locker rooms. It was not pretty. Any sign of weakness made you a 'faggot', a 'fairy,' and a 'fudge-packer.'
Even today, coming out in pro sports is a bit of an uphill adventure. The NFL bullying scandal last season documented just how much mindlessness and brutality still invades the pro locker room. It reflects the mentality of many players. Stereotypes exist for a reason.
Meanwhile, with the NFL draft just around the corner, Michael Sam is set to become the first openly gay player in the NFL. Understandably though, he wants reporters to ask him more about who he tackles on the field than in bedrooms. We, the gay community, want respect as professionals in the daytime, not as scorers in the nighttime.
Of course, Michael Sam will not be the first gay pro football player. Dave Kopay has written a book about his life as a gay man who played pro football. He was with Outsports.com editor Cyd Ziegler last month for Sam's announcement. So was Wade Davis, who wrote a column in Sports Illustrated praising Sam; Davis came out after his career ended, explaining that homophobia kept him in the closet.
ESPN also recently featured Jerry Smith's history as a gay Washington Redskins tight end in the 1970's. Smith died of AIDS in 1986, and his uniform has become part of the AIDS quilt, but he never publicly acknowledged he was gay. Head coach Vince Lombardi, who had a gay brother, demanded a homophobia-free locker room but not even the legendary Lombardi could insulate him from the mentality of the era.
"I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it," Sam told the New York Times. "I just want to own my truth." Good for him, and it's great that some NFL executives have responded maturely.
For example, one time pro star John Elway, now a VP with the Denver Broncos, said:
"I applaud Michael Sam and wish him the very best as he continues the pursuit of his NFL dream. We will evaluate Michael just like any other draft prospect -- on the basis of his ability, character and NFL potential. His announcement will have no effect on how we see him as a football player."
Sam, a unanimous All-America selection, was the Southeastern Conference's co-Defensive Player of the Year. He notched an SEC-best 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss last season. He is a lock to be drafted. But no matter what Elway said, Sam's candor could still impact his draft number. Some team owners might opt out of the media attention his selection will generate.
For example, New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma expressed his fear that the closed minded nature of some athletes will generate a level of resistance. There's former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe now charging that he was fired because of his public support for marriage equality. Also, San Francisco 49er Chris Culliver last year threatened that gays better not even think about coming out in the NFL anytime soon.
You know what it is? It's straight vanity: the thought that every gay guy in the shower is staring at you. Because it's not just pro football: homophobia pervades professional sports, including baseball and basketball. To their credit, the National Hockey League, which backs the 'You Can Play' Project, is the only league doing anything about it.
Michael Sam's forthright candor will help alter a mindless dynamic. The guy is a leader who can cut it. He is creating a path for others by his courage today. Having the President of the United States on your side does not hurt either. The more persons of stature and substance who stand with Sam, the easier it is for others to publicly join our team.
It does not matter if pro football is ready for an openly gay player just yet. The decision is not theirs to make. It is going to be acceptable a lot sooner than later because Michael Sams are emerging in every sport. We saw gay Olympians such as Ireen Wust prevail in the Olympics recently as well.
Yes, they win first because of their talent, but maybe that ability to overcome adversity was honed by being gay athletes in a straight world.
I have always felt the game is all about who can help you win. If you can throw a game-winning pass or knock in the winning run, pro athletes will want you on their team even if you drink, smoke, or go down on other guys. It will be more so in years ahead because of athletes like Michael Sam and Jason Collins, the NBA player who also came out last year. They open doors today to make it easier for many more tomorrow.
Eventually, these gay athletes will be judged by their performance on the field with their teammates, not by their partners in bed. This is as it should be, and as it should always have been.
Sometimes, I wish I could have done more sooner. I would have liked to make the cover of Sports Illustrated too. For now, I guess a column on Bilerico.com will have to do.