Let the Welfare of the People be the Supreme Law – Official Motto of the University of Missouri
Few things have suffered from as much goal post moving as the assigning of the title ‘First LGBT Athlete’. All you have to do is wiki search List of LGBT Sportspeople and you’ll see over 90 Americans alone on the expansive list. A pro boxer comes out as bi, doesn’t matter, boxing isn’t a mainstream sport. Several Olympians come out, doesn’t matter, the Olympics only come around every couple years. Brittany Griner comes out as lesbian after being selected number one overall in the WNBA draft, doesn’t matter, basketball is a mainstream sport but it doesn’t count because it’s women’s basketball. Jason Collins comes out as gay, doesn’t matter, he came out while he was an active NBA player but didn’t actually play any games after he came out owing to him being an aging veteran with bad knees who wasn’t going to get signed to a new contract regardless of his orientation.
Next up we have Michael Sam. A Galveston born 6’2″ 255 lb defensive end from the University of Missouri who majored in Parks, Recreation, and Tourism. When/if(to me it’s a when but I’ll get to that in a second) he is drafted in the 2014 NFL draft, it will be tough to argue there are any other caveats that could discount him from holding the title. I’m certain someone will come up with something though.
Here’s what everyone cared about regarding this player before this news story broke. In his senior year Sam was a unanimous first team all american, SEC(a conference known for the best defensive players in the country) defensive player of the year, and was a finalist for both the Nagurski Trophy and Lombari Award. Over his college career he had 123 tackles(including 36 for a loss), 21 sacks(11.5 of those coming his senior year), six forced fumbles, and two interceptions. These are good career numbers and should set him up for a career in the NFL. Projections made prior to yesterday had him going somewhere in the third round of the draft.
That last part is important because someone will inevitably use him not going in the first round as proof his LGBT status lowered his draft stock. If he falls down sixth round, or isn’t drafted at all, then there is a case to be made. If he is drafted in the third round though, things went exactly as expected. I doubt this will happen, but if he does get drafted in the first round, I would also venture to say his LGBT status affected his draft stock by getting a team to reach unnecessarily early for him so that they could be the first team with an open LGBT player. Whether you think that’s good that a team is excited to have that mantle, or bad because it means he was judged for his sexuality rather than his skills is up to you. I would guess Michael Sam would lean towards the latter though.
The most important thing we’ve learned about his coming out story is that he came out to his teammates at Missouri at the beginning of his senior year. This is important because it shoots to pieces one of the major supposed hurdles for LGBT players, the idea that having an out player will destroy a locker room in a potassium being introduced to water sort of way. His teammates knew, the team went 12-2, won the Cotton bowl, and Sam was voted team MVP by the players. It was more like carbon being introduced to water! These chemistry jokes working for anyone? I’ll stop now.
Ultimately we’ll see where he gets drafted. It will probably be in the third or fourth rounds. Then we just have to sit through analysts trying to say, “Team X drafts openly gay sack specialist,” with a straight face and all will be well. If he gets drafted too high, or not at all, then there will be additional conversations to have, but I truly believe that talent trumps all and Michael Sam will be the first openly gay athlete who passes all the purity standards I listed in my opening. It is distinctly possible that when/if he is drafted we will see players currently on NFL rosters come out as well now that the dam has been broken.
On a final note, I understand why people are going to make the Jackie Robinson comparison. Michael Sam is brave to come out in a way that could theoretically lose him a job in a career he loves. Jackie Robinson was brave because he faced the quite real possibility of himself, his wife, or his children being drug into the street and beaten to death. I’m not trying to belittle what Michael Sam did, it shows character in such a profound way that I don’t even know if I’ll ever have the opportunity to try to match it in my own life, much less make the right decision if such a moment comes. Sports writers just have a tendency to get hyperbolic in a hurry and I want us to keep our quite recent history, both in Robinson breaking the color barrier and all the athletes I listed who have already broken the rainbow barrier, in mind even as we watch new history written.
As always, questions, comments, and concerns are welcome. Answers are guaranteed.