Demographics on the gay population in the United States aren’t as easy to come by as you might think. Depending on who you ask, the gay/bisexual population might be as low as 3.8%, to 10%, to 20% or more. In a repressed society, the sad fact is that often the last person to know someone is gay/bisexual is the one who has to has to admit it to him/herself.
That’s especially true in subsets of society where homosexuality is literally the most taboo subject on Earth. But, for the first time in history, one college football and likely future NFL player has admitted this reality not only to himself, but to the world.
The scene couldn’t have been better if it were penned by Hollywood. Michael Sam, then a defensive lineman for the University of Missouri (!) found himself in an interesting team-building exercise two weeks ago. The coaches had divided the team up into small work groups for pre-season practice, and one by one went through the ranks asking the players to tell the group something about themselves. Specifically, they asked players to tell their teammates “something nobody else knows about you.”
Sam, as many gay men do, showed up to the practice with a carefully crafted script in hand. We’ll never know what he intended to tell his teammates, because right before speaking he balled the paper up in his fist and said what may prove to be the two most important words of his life.
Stunned silence greeted Sam. He said afterward that “I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their heads — like, finally, he came out.”
This in itself speaks fascinating volumes about the NFL, and those who play. The interesting thing about this reaction is not that his teammates were surprised or outraged that Sam was gay — they were more shocked that he ADMITTED it. Especially considering the fact that Sam (now out of college) is an expected NFL draft pick; at 6’2″ and 260 lbs, Sam is a first-team All American, and crushed his way to the AP’s Defensive Player of the Year in the prestigious Southeastern Conference. His teammates have long since voted him MVP, and he is projected as an early pick in next year’s NFL draft.
It remains to be seen if Sam will gather the same public adulation from his peers next year, now that the world knows that Missouri of all states was flirting with The Player that Dare Not Speak Its Name. Of course, Ol’ Miss may not have much say in the matter, because Sam is almost certainly on his way to the big leagues next year. And that’s what makes this admission so courageous. His former coach, Gary Pinkel, was proud of his lineman:
“We’re really happy for Michael that he’s made the decision to announce this, and we’re proud of him and how he represents Mizzou. Michael is a great example of just how important it is to be respectful of others, he’s taught a lot of people here first-hand that it doesn’t matter what your background is, or your personal orientation, we’re all on the same team and we all support each other.”
While the story of his coming out has just surfaced, it’s already lighting up the message boards at ESPN. He told them in an interview on Feb. 10th:
“I am an openly, proud gay man…I understand how big this is. It’s a big deal. No one has done this before. And it’s kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be … I want to be a football player in the NFL.”
Sam isn’t the first athlete to come out as gay…but he is the first to do it when he really had something to risk by doing so. Other athletes were much further into their professional careers, well established as valuable players, or even retired by the time they came out. And there’s still something to be said for that. But there’s much more to be said for someone willing to risk the career he spent his life building before its even begun, simply to be true to himself.
It must be said that even though Sam’s courage was at the forefront of his admission (never mind to actually BE a gay football player), it wasn’t done entirely outside of duress or fear. In a sense, it was bigotry itself that forced Sam to confront the coming rumor mill — and he faced it head-on, like the 260-pound defensive lineman he is.
“I didn’t realize how many people actually knew, and I was afraid that someone would tell or leak something out about me. I want to own my truth. … No one else should tell my story but me.”
Of course, Sam couldn’t have known how his teammates or former coach would react; that’s always the terrifying question for anyone who’s spent life hiding behind lies. There’s a natural — and often, completely reasonable — fear of the dark. The willingness to step into it so often takes cojones the size of…well, the size of an NFL lineman’s.
Mathematics alone suggest that among the NFL’s 1,600 or so registered players, somewhere between 60 and 160 should be gay or bisexual. And those are the low-end numbers of those who would actively identify as LGBT among the general public. There’s no telling how many haven’t or wouldn’t even admit it to themselves; the whole league could be shot through with Mr. Hat Syndrome, for all we know.
But one guy has to be first, and one gets to be first. Let the roster forever show that 24-year-old Michael Sam is that man.
So, how will this all shake out for this cultural juggernaut and NFL hopeful? Well, it turns out that hope itself is somewhat futile at this point…because hope is passed, and “certainty” is the word of the day. Greg Aiello, NFL Senior VP of Communications:
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”