3 reasons why Michael Sam coming out as gay is a huge deal for the NFL

Yesterday, University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, a 1st-team All-American and Associated Press Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year, publicly announced that he is gay.

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Sam’s announcement puts him in position to become the NFL’s first openly gay player, and comes during the run-up to the NFL’s scouting combine on February 19th. As teams head into the offseason to evaluate their needs and the talent available, Sam is considered to be a solid prospect, currently ranked as the 9th-best defensive end and the 90th-best overall prospect, which would make him a 3rd-round selection, according to CBS’ mock draft standings.

It’s hard to overstate how big of a deal this is, but here are a few reasons why Sam’s announcement should put any doubts about whether or not the NFL is ready for a gay player to bed:

Michael Sam is a leader, not a distraction

While Sam publicly came out recently, he came out to his teammates before the season began. Per the New York Times:

Coaches at the University of Missouri divided players into small groups at a preseason football practice last year for a team-building exercise. One by one, players were asked to talk about themselves — where they grew up, why they chose Missouri and what others might not know about them.

As Michael Sam, a defensive lineman, began to speak, he balled up a piece of paper in his hands. “I’m gay,” he said.

For the entire season, Sam’s teammates knew he was gay and went about their business winning games. While former New York Jets head coach Herman Edwards was quick to assert that having a gay player would bring “baggage to the locker room” and serve as a distraction detrimental to the success of any potential new team, Sam’s Tigers are coming off of arguably the best season in school history, going 12-2 and winning the Cotton Bowl. For his part, Sam led the Southeastern Conference, considered the nation’s most competitive conference, with 11.5 sacks. He added an additional 19 tackles for loss. At the end of the season, his teammates voted him team MVP.

Sam told the Times that he only decided to make a public announcement after rumors began to emerge that were getting in the way of his scouting process, telling ESPN that he wanted to “make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it.” According to Sam’s agent, scouts were asking whether or not Sam had a girlfriend or had been seen with women before they would ask about Sam’s work ethic or playing ability. In other words, Sam’s sexual orientation only became a distraction because other people decided that it should be. He just went out and played.

Michael Sam does not fit the NFL’s gay stereotype

Following his announcement, another unnamed NFL executive told Sports Illustrated that they did not feel the NFL was ready for an openly-gay player, saying “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game.”

Excuse me, do you mean to tell me that this guy isn’t a man’s man?

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Image courtesy of Creative Commons

At 6’3″ and 260 pounds of absolute doom, Michael Sam is an imposing presence on a football field. Whether he stays at defensive end or moves to linebacker after being drafted (scouts say that he is a little undersized for a defensive end), most NFL insiders seem to have assumed that the first openly gay player would play one of the “weaker” positions like kicker or punter. You know, the ones that can be explained away.

If you’re wondering why it took so long for rumors to emerge that he was gay after coming out to his teammates during the preseason last summer, it’s because no one thought to ask. Everyone simply assumed that someone as badass as Sam would be straight. As Sam told the Times:

If someone on the street would have asked me, “Hey, Mike, I heard you were gay; is that true?” I would have said yes. I guess they don’t want to ask a 6-3, 260-pound defensive lineman if he was gay or not.

There’s a grain of truth in the unnamed NFL executive’s statement that the NFL is a “man’s-man’s” game: professional football players are considered the most macho athletes we have. And if one (or a few) of them happen to be gay and they run just as fast, hit just as hard and play coverage just as well as their straight counterparts (read: are “man’s men”), then it’s hard to take anyone seriously when they say that members of the LGBT community can’t do anything else.

If and when Michael Sam underperforms in the draft, the NFL will take a massive PR hit

The NFL was quick to come out in support of Sam, releasing a statement reading:

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.

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But while the league as a whole recognizes that homophobia has become a bad business practice, those involved with individual teams who actually make drafting decisions were not so politically correct. NFL insiders are unanimously saying that Sam’s announcement has hurt his draft prospects. This means that we now have the opportunity for a natural experiment of sorts, albeit an imperfect one. While there are still just under three months between now and draft day, if Sam’s draft stock falls significantly between now and then, the “9th-best defensive end” benchmark set yesterday will be used as a measuring stick. And regardless of how Sam performs in the scouting combine, it will be difficult not to compare where Sam gets drafted to his standing in the mock draft on February 9, 2014.

Say Michael Sam is the 15th defensive end drafted instead of the ninth, dropping him into the 5th or 6th round instead of the 3rd and therefore significantly lowering the value of his initial contract, “Being Gay Just Cost Michael Sam $___” will be all too easy of a story to write. In essence, while reports of homophobia in the NFL are rampant but difficult to substantiate, Sam’s announcement will make it possible to quantify homophobia in the NFL, and this will be a PR nightmare for the league.

So, come May, if you’ve got a favorite NFL team and they pass on Michael Sam in the draft (especially if your team could use a linebacker or defensive end), you should let them know that they hurt their chances of winning and have therefore lost your respect by picking an inferior player because the qualified guy happened to be gay. Homophobia is already a bad sports decision; let them know that it’s a bad business decision, too.

At the time of writing, 65 percent of respondents to an unscientific ESPN SportsNation poll (the one they’ll cite on TV over and over today) indicated that they think the NFL is ready for an openly gay player. The only individual states that answered “no” were Arkansas and Wyoming (both by slim 48-52 margins), neither of which has an NFL team. In other words, football fans – the people who fill the stands and watch the games on TV – are totally fine with Michael Sam playing in the NFL. It’s time the NFL’s teams got on board.

In Sam’s words, “only good things are going to come from this.”

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Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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