Football’s Cowardice Comes Out

Potential draft pick Michael Sam showed great courage by coming out before entering a league that has no player who publicly identifies as gay. The people who run that league's teams reacted to his decision with an equal share of gutlessness

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Joe Robbins / Getty Images

Sam celebrates with fans after the game against Kentucky on November 9, 2013.

It’s been less than 24 hours since former Missouri star and NFL hopeful Michael Sam announced to the public that he is gay, and already the story has its villains. We just don’t know their names.

Immediately after ESPN and the New York Times reported on Sam’s sexuality, Sports Illustrated (a fellow Time Inc. publication) posted a story quoting eight NFL executives who all claimed that Sam’s sexual orientation would hinder his path to the NFL and would be a “distraction.” To a man, the executives—general managers, player personnel assistants, scouts—spoke on the condition of anonymity. Hours later, SI‘s Monday Morning Quarterback site released a story quoting four more NFL executives who echoed the sentiments expressed in the first story and also spoke anonymously.

(MORE: Michael Sam’s Test for Gay Rights)

General managers and scouts speaking anonymously is nothing new to sports journalism, but using that anonymity to promote thinly-veiled bigotry isn’t as common. Worse still, the NFL executives quoted by SI are passing the blame for their opinions, saying that it’s the players that wouldn’t want Sam in their locker room. “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,” one executive told SI. “To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”

It is worth noting that Greg Aiello, a league spokesman, struck a different note.

While it’s unlikely that every NFL player would welcome Sam with open arms (look no further than New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma’s comments last week), player reaction to Sam’s announcement has been almost universally positive—and public:

Yes, it’s true that those sharing a positive reaction would be more inclined to put their name on it, but we don’t have to look at Sam’s circumstances as an out football player in the abstract. Sam came out to his teammates and coaches at Mizzou last August and it didn’t seem to in any way diminish his performance or that of his team. Sam was named the 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year and Missouri, which didn’t receive a single vote in the AP preseason poll, finished the season 12-2 and ranked fifth in the nation. “I never had a problem with my teammates,” Sam told the Times. “Some of my coaches were worried, but there was never an issue.” 

And yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, NFL executives, at least those speaking anonymously, insist that Sam would be a “distraction.” Part of the reason that Sam came out so far in advance of the draft was that he and his representatives wanted the story to run its course as best it could before he joined whatever NFL team ultimately drafts him. (The whole process is chronicled in Cyd Zeigler’s fascinating story for OutSports). The specter of “distractions” always far exceeds the impact of the alleged distraction itself. Manti Te’o had a fake dead girlfriend and was one of the most scrutinized sports figures in the early months of 2013, but the San Diego Chargers drafted him in the second round anyway and enjoyed their best season since 2009. Seahawks players Marshawn Lynch and Richard Sherman each drew attention for their words (or lack thereof) prior to the Super Bowl, but Seattle had no trouble thumping the Broncos 43-8 to win the championship on Feb. 3.

(MORENFL Hopeful Michael Sam Comes Out Ahead Of Draft)

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper was caught on camera saying the n-word at a concert last summer, but was excused from team activities for just a few days before returning to training camp. There was no rash of NFL executives anonymously accusing him of being a distraction, even though there were numerous reports that he was reviled within the locker room. Instead, Riley became the subject of an profile in November that chronicled his so-called redemption.

The message from NFL front offices is clear: executives are more unsettled by the potential victims of bigotry than its perpetrators. Michael Sam had the courage to make a public announcement on Sunday that will forever change the course of his career. It’s hard to decide whether it’s more depressing or embarrassing that NFL executives won’t show the same courage as they try to ruin it before it even starts.