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Gay lineman's announcement breaks through fear

  • Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam is poised to become the first openly gay player in the NFL.
Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam is poised to become the first openly… (US Presswire )
February 09, 2014|By Matt Lindner | For RedEye

The fact that an athlete coming out of the closet on the cusp of one of the biggest moments of his life is a major news story in 2014 is equal parts astonishing and shameful.

We as a society should have evolved to the point where it's all right to be true to yourself regardless of whether you're a professional accountant or a professional athlete.

But now is the time for the Michael Sams of the world to stand up and be proud of who they are in public.

Sam, in case you missed it, went from an NFL draft prospect unknown to the masses to cultural icon overnight simply by being true to himself.

Sam, on the verge of the greatest payday of his young life, became the latest and perhaps highest profile athlete to come out of the closet and into the public spotlight Sunday night in interviews with ESPN and The New York Times.

There will come a day when an announcement like this isn't news.

Today, unfortunately, is not that day. If he makes an NFL roster—and as the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, that appears to be certain—Sam will become the first openly gay player in the history of the NFL and only the second in our country's four major pro sports. Sam is the first to do so at the beginning of his career, however. The other, NBA player Jason Collins, remains a free agent who hasn't played since coming out last year.

Sam's decision is commendable for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that he may have just cost himself a significant amount of money.

While no front office will say it publicly, Sam's decision to open up about his sexuality could be viewed as a distraction by teams who may decide they don't want to deal with the locker room and public relations issues that may come with being the first team to employ an openly gay player. The macho culture of pro sports remains such that the six-letter "F" word remains a part of many locker room vocabularies.

That much was made evident in a piece on SI.com late Sunday, wherein its writers surveyed anonymous NFL executives and coaches about Sam's decision.

"I don't think football is ready for it just yet," an NFL player personnel assistant told SI. "In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."

A "man's man" game? It's a quote so fundamentally Neanderthal and, frankly, wrong that it boggles the mind that people still say things like that. Sam's sexuality didn't prevent him from notching 11.5 sacks this season in college football's best league. It didn't make him any less of a man.

There are signs that attitudes like the one expressed by the anonymous NFL personnel assistant may be changing, however. While the public is just now learning of Sam's sexuality, he actually came out to his Missouri teammates in August. Here's how Sam recalled their reaction to The Times:

"I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their heads — like, finally, he came out," he said.

In other words, his teammates knew long before he told them, and they just didn't care. Not only that, but they kept it a secret from the outside world. It wasn't their place to out him.

If only adults could find it within themselves to be more like college students in this case, the world would be a better place.

Not to trivialize Collins and others before Sam's decision to come out, but his announcement will have bigger societal ramifications than almost all of them combined.

Young closeted athletes afraid of being true to themselves now have a role model soon to be on an NFL roster showing them there's nothing to be afraid of. It's a decision that is going to potentially save lives and change attitudes while ushering in a broader cultural shift in locker rooms across the country.

Someday, on a day not that far in the future, it won't matter if you're gay, so long as you can play.

Matt Lindner is a RedEye special contributor.

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