February 12, 2014

ZAKOUR| Coming Out in the NFL

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When NFL draft prospect and SEC co-defensive player of the year Michael Sam came out as gay to the New York Times, he created quite a stir. Shattering any preconceived stereotypes, Sam played defensive end for the Tigers of Missouri and was a unanimous All-American selection. He was a high motor and hard hitting player. He was always a leader for the men at Missouri, and his teammates loved playing with him. Sam played in the trenches of the defensive line in the best defensive conference in America, the SEC, for a team that almost went to the BCS title game.

When Sam publicly came out and told the world he was a gay man, his teammates gave him universal support. Some of his closest friends on the team said they had known for all four years and had kept it a secret to respect his wishes. Sam came out to the team before his senior year, his best season. Besides this being a tremendous endorsement of coach Gary Pinkel’s abilities, it shows that an adrenaline filled locker room can play and excel with not just an openly gay player, but also an openly gay leader.

Why can’t professional athletes, who routinely describe their teams as families and their teammates as brothers in arms, be accepting as well? How is it that pro football players can play through unimaginable pain and stress, but would not be able to play along side a gay teammate?

However, it is not the players I worry the most about. While Sam’s announcement was met with support from past and possibly future teammates, it was also met with comments, as usual, that the NFL is not ready for an openly gay player. Most of the complaints that the NFL is not ready are actually coming from executives and anonymous scouts around the league.

According to Sports Illustrated, who surveyed each NFL personnel member, Sam hurt his draft stock. CBS Sports dropped Sam 70 spots in its draft rankings (I’d love to see the methodology behind that. It is worth noting that that is about how much Da’Quan Bowers’ stock was hurt when he had to deal with extensive medical problems. So being openly gay in the NFL is roughly equivalent to having major knee surgery). I say screw that.

If we keep waiting for the magic moment when 100 percent of the pro sports workforce and management is OK with openly gay players, we will be waiting forever. The reality of it is some people will always be intolerant, and they should be forced to keep up with the times, not the other way around. The NFL, America’s favorite pastime and biggest pro sport, should not have to cater to bigots and the narrow-minded.

The concept of “readiness” is bull anyways. If you are only going to define “readiness” as no one has a problem with it, no one would ever be ready for anything but the status quo. Major League Baseball was not “ready” for Jackie Robinson when he broke the color barrier, judging by the mountains of abuse he took. Of course, the idea of African Americans not being to play baseball is ridiculous today. Yet, last Monday, NBA lottery prospect Marcus Smart pushed a fan he ran into because he was allegedly called a black racial slur (you do the math). In that case, maybe the NBA is not ready for a black player. Even in 2014, there is at least one fan who cannot get over black people in basketball. Like I said, there will never be a point when everyone is onboard.  If you are only going to define “readiness” as no one has a problem with it, no one would ever be ready for anything but the status quo.

People generally do not want to talk about homosexuality in sports. Part of this is because the locker room culture might be construed as hateful and homophobic. It probably is. The truth is, most people do not believe anything they say on the court or field. When you are competing at the highest levels, you are doing anything to gain an edge. Tempers flare. If you can get your opponent to lose his cool, you are winning.

When I hear people say how much abuse an openly gay player will take, I just ignore it. I think he will be able to handle it. Kevin Garnett, future NBA Hall of Famer, is a notorious trash talker. He uses gay slurs all over the court. But he is not sexist or homophobic (well maybe he could be, but I do not think so). Allegedly, Garnett has talked trash during games about Carmelo Anthony’s wife, Charlie Villanueva’s chronic autoimmune condition and Tim Duncan’s mom dying. These guys just had to deal with it. It is not easy playing pro sports in America. I am not trying to be unsympathetic, but if we use trash talk as a gauge of tolerance and acceptance, we would never get anywhere.

Meanwhile in Sochi, host of the Winter Olympics, homosexuality is considered a crime. What could be a better protest to Russia’s arcane policies than showing that the NFL, the rough and mean testosterone fueled NFL, is a beacon of tolerance the Olympics cannot touch? Come on people; it’s 2014. Let’s get over it.