By BEN HOROWITZ
On a weekend with sports fans mostly focusing on the winter fun of the Sochi Olympics, important news for the uniquely American sport of football came to the forefront of the media. Michael Sam, a first team All-American defensive end from the University of Missouri, announced to the world that he is gay. He told his parents for the first time last week, then held interviews with ESPN and the New York Times over the weekend. He is absolutely comfortable with himself, and he is not ashamed to be honest with the outside world either.
“I’m Michael Sam, and I’m a football player. I want to be a football player in the NFL. I understand how big this is because this a big deal. No one has done this before. It’s kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be. I want to be playing snaps in the NFL,” he told ESPN.com. “I’m Michael Sam, and I’m a football player. I want to be a football player in the NFL. — Michael Sam
Having an openly gay football player at one of the prominent football schools in America would be a captivating story in its own right, but Michael Sam is no ordinary college football player. He was the defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) as a senior at Missouri this season, recording 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss, more than anyone else in the SEC. He led his team to a Cotton Bowl victory over Oklahoma State in January, recording one sack and forcing a fumble to help the Tigers cap off a 12-2 season with a Bowl Championship Series win. It was a great way for Sam to finish his senior season, and he is certain to be drafted at the NFL Draft this coming May. At 6’2” and 255 pounds, Sam has a unique combination of speed and strength, and he has a unique knack for rushing the quarterback. He has the potential to play either at Defensive End or at Outside Linebacker when he reaches the NFL.
Sam knows that to be a great football player, hard work, teamwork and determination matter most. That is why he felt absolutely comfortable coming out to his teammates and coaches this past August, before even telling his parents. He knew that Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel had his back, and that the coach always emphasized the need for players to respect each other’s differences in order to really bond as a football team. The coach and his teammates immediately accepted him, but they agreed that it made sense for Sam to hold off on a public announcement until after the season, so that it would not be a distraction for the team. Sam is a consummate team player, who will do whatever it takes to help his team win.
“If I work hard and I make plays, that’s all that should matter,” he said. “Can he help us win games? Is he a team player? That’s all that should matter. I like to see myself as that: I am team player, I can make plays, and I can help teams win games, and that’s all that should matter.”
Michael is absolutely right. That is all that matters. It is what matters most to every general manager in the NFL, and it is the reason that a team will be happy to draft Michael Sam in the early rounds. But it is also the reason why fans and media should treat him just like any other player, rather than following his every step and squeezing every bit out of the story of the first openly gay player trying to make it in the NFL. That will certainly sell magazines and papers, but it will not be good for Sam.
Adjusting to the NFL is a difficult process for any player. The expectations are much greater, the players are all much better, and new players need to adjust to a locker room with well-established coaches and veterans. Many straight college players struggle to handle the pressure of being a high draft pick in the NFL, which is partially why many college stars are NFL busts. It is a much tougher league, and it is essential for new players to be focused on the playing field in order to succeed.
An endless swarm of paparazzi will only make the transition more difficult for Sam. It will distract him from focusing on football and make it harder for him to prove himself as a player. It will also be detrimental to the entire team that he joins, because in general, when one player garners a hoard of personal media attention, it detracts from the overall focus on the team.
I am confident that we have reached a point where Sam will not face significant discrimination from NFL teammates, coaches and management. There will certainly be fans who do not approve of Sam’s decision, but he has never seemed to care about the things fans say behind his back. He just wants to be the best football player that he can be.
To help Sam be at his best, he should be treated like all other players, not like a celebrity. That way, he will not just go into the history books as the NFL’s first gay player, but also as a player who helped his team win. A winner.