Keeping Score

Be Smart, NFL: Football Is Ready For Michael Sam

One former NFL player, who spent his pro career in the closet, expects the Missouri All-American to thrive.

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Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam, on November 23, 2013 in Oxford, Mississippi. Missouri defeated Ole Miss 24-10.

Former NFL player Wade Davis, who played in the league in the early 2000s but did not come out of the closet until 2012, has some advice for all those anonymous NFL execs criticizing Michael Sam. Be smart.

Davis met Sam — the senior defensive lineman from the University of Missouri who announced he is gay — at a gathering in Los Angeles on Saturday night, the day before Sam broke his news to the world. Sam, named SEC defensive player of the year by the Associated Press, is prepping for May’s NFL draft and poised to become the first openly gay, active player in the big four U.S. pro sports leagues.

“I think what they’re going to learn, when they sit down with Michael, is that he’s an extremely likeable guy,” says Davis. “And he’s a football player. He’s not someone who is looking to become this political advocate, who wants to be talking about LGBT rights. That’s not who he is.”

Davis’ first impression of Sam? The guy is intense. “There’s a presence about him that you want to be around him,” says Davis. “What team wouldn’t want someone who transcended any fears they had, that exists with so much courage and strength, to be a part of their team?”

What may sound like wishful thinking on Davis’ part may just be common sense. Presuming that Sam, an undersized defense end, can help a team win games — before the announcement, some draft experts had him going in the third round, which speaks to his serious NFL prospects — any fears of a “distraction” will probably be put to rest. Sure, Sam’s promise to remain apolitical will likely earn him points with NFL front offices; this speaks to the stifling culture of the league. But if Sam is truly uncomfortable in an advocacy role — no shame in that —  and can play football, what, really, is the problem?

Missouri did just fine with Sam, who came out to his team before the start of the season. The Tigers, playing in their second season in the SEC, finished 12-2, made the conference championship game, and beat Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl, 41-31. Sam says that his Missouri teammates accepted him. But those are college kids: you tend to make better friendships in school, right? The workplace, after all, is a much more cutthroat, less forgiving environment.

Davis disagrees. “You develop closer bonds in the pros, where there’s no class to go to and you’re together for longer periods of time,” says Davis, now the executive director for the You Can Play Project, an advocacy group working for equality for LGBT athletes. “You’re there at 6 or 7 in the morning, and you don’t go home until 6 or 7 at night. Most players don’t want to go home to their wives, right? So they’re hanging around.”

During his NFL career, Davis did not experience much homophobia. “Maybe I was on three teams that were really unicorns and lollipops,” says Davis. “But in Tennessee and Washington and Seattle I heard very few slurs. What you hear is more sexist language.”

Sure, there will be exceptions. New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, for example, has said he might not be comfortable with a gay teammate. “Imagine if he’s the guy next to me, and you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me, how am I supposed to respond?” Vilma told the NFL Network.

Davis, however, doesn’t demonize Vilma. “There are going to be Jonathan Vilmas of the world, and there needs to be those guys,” says Davis. “Who can actually speak up and say, ‘hey, this is how I feel, let’s have a conversation.’ If Jonathan Vilma doesn’t speak up, everything is kind of hidden. The thing we can’t do is turn Jonathan Vilma into a villain for being honest. Because that’s the same thing Michael did.”

For any team that takes him, Sam will spark a media crush. But even that attention will fade. At some point, harping on a person’s sexual preference becomes a boring story, if the person isn’t subject to any workplace discrimination.

“Five years from now, no one will remember a day when this wasn’t accepted,” says Leigh Steinberg, the veteran sports agent, and inspiration for the movie Jerry Maguire. “I’ll give you a contrast. In the 70s and 80s, and into the 90s, I would have thought it was a very dangerous idea for an NFL client to come out of the closet. I would have advised against it. Back in those days, when there was still a Soviet Union, someone would be better off admitting they were communist than admitting they were gay. Times have changed. This will only be a controversy until he’s drafted, and becomes an NFL player.”

Not that Sam still won’t have a cultural impact. “He is opening a lot of doors for other African-American males that are dealing with sexual identity issues,” says Akil Patterson, youth programs director for Athlete Ally, a gay rights advocacy group, and a former offensive lineman for the University of Maryland. (Patterson is gay).

If Sam can thrive in the NFL’s warrior culture as an openly gay man, he can help erase stereotypes and stigmas. “There are so many myths he busted at one time,” says Davis. “He busted the myth that the Midwest was homophobic. He busted the myth that African-Americans are homophobic, that athletes are homophobic. He was accepted and embraced. Imagine that.”