Someday it won’t be big news that an NFL team drafted an openly gay college player.
Someday that player’s name won’t be prefaced with a designation of sexual orientation, just like we no longer use the word “Negro” to describe black players, like the newspapers and magazines did some 50 years ago.
Someday the drafting team won’t have to go out of its way to say how honored it is to be selecting the openly gay player.
How far we are from that “someday” is anyone’s guess. Mine is that we’re not on the precipice.
But that’s OK. Any journey, no matter how long, needs that first step.
The St. Louis Rams selected Missouri defensive end Michael Sam in the seventh round of the 2014 Draft—the 249th overall pick.
This isn’t quite Jackie Robinson jogging onto the field, along with eight white guys, back in 1947 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but it’s not insignificant.
The key word is “openly.”
You’d have to be ridiculously naïve to think that Sam, should he make the Rams (which he almost certainly will), is the lone ranger when it comes to gay NFL players today.
And you’d have to be almost as naïve to think that those gay players’ sexual orientation is unknown to all of their teammates.
There are certainly NFL players in 2014 who know damn well that they are lining up with and against gay men.
But Sam is the first to make no bones about it. He came out on ESPN just prior to the scouting combine in Indianapolis in February.
There is one comparison to Robinson, however.
Michael Sam can play football. Like Robinson, Sam is hardly a benchwarmer.
Sam was the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 while playing for the Tigers. He was credited with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss.
So barring injury or something catastrophic, Sam will indeed become the NFL’s first openly gay player. He may even start for the Rams—if not right away, then soon.
This isn’t a huge day for just the LGBT community—it’s huge day, period.
This is America, where we pride ourselves on our diversity.
But until today in pro sports, that diversity has never really included sexual orientation.
Sam isn’t just the first openly gay man to be drafted into the NFL, he’s the first to be drafted into any of the four major sports.
MLB recently celebrated Jackie Robinson Day, and while we should never forget Robinson’s courage and significance in history, it does seem kind of silly that we once made such a big deal about a black guy taking the field in a big league game.
Someday we won’t make such a big deal about a gay man or woman suiting up in a major sports league contest.
But that day, clearly, is not today.
I hope Michael Sam knows what he’s up against, and I’m sure he does. If he doesn’t, that would be naivety to the max.
But let’s keep things in perspective.
No matter what Sam may go through, from his first day at training camp to the first scrimmage play in which he assumes the three-point stance, it will pale in comparison to what Jackie Robinson endured.
The fans are a million miles away in an NFL stadium, compared to big league baseball games, where you can almost reach out and touch the guy in the on-deck circle.
Sam won’t even hear much of the vile, disgusting words that are sure to be hurled his way.
Robinson’s appearance in big league games was fought tooth and nail by team owners and players. It wasn’t just the fans who spewed their hate. Some players in 1947 initially refused to take the field in any game in which Robinson was scheduled to play.
And, of course, there were the death threats.
Michael Sam will get some static, for sure. But I doubt that the brotherhood of NFL players will be anything more than a tiny source of that static. The owners, I believe, won’t provide any resistance. They know better.
What Sam will have to deal with that Robinson didn’t, is the venom from social media.
His Twitter account exploded after the Rams’ announcement. Sam gained 20 percent more followers within two hours of his being drafted.
But as we all know, the Internet is the ultimate double-edged sword.
Sam may have gained followers, but he will also be vilified and filleted on his Twitter account. The Internet will be filled with words of hatred about a gay man playing in the NFL.
This is actually kind of hilarious.
One of Sam’s new teammates with the Rams, defensive lineman Chris Long, told ESPN.com, “Obviously people are going to make something out of it. He’s not the first gay player to ever play football. He might be the first openly gay professional football player, but there’s all types of people from all over in an NFL locker room; it really is a melting pot and it never ceases to amaze me how a locker room can just mesh, people from all different walks of life, so I don’t think it’s an issue. He’s coming to a really good D-line room.”
Rams coach Jeff Fisher said he was honored to be part of the Sam pick, and reiterated that the team is getting a good football player, not a gay one.
It seems Sam will have acceptance within his own locker room, and I suspect throughout the league, for the most part.
So he’s one up on Robinson in that respect.
This openly gay stuff really shouldn’t be a big deal, but that can only be assured as the years go by and we look back at the 2014 Draft and kind of chuckle at Michael Sam’s drafting being a sensation.
It will be, “Jeez, can you believe we made such a thing over that?”
But we’re not there yet.
When the St. Louis Rams picked Sam on Saturday, they didn’t just take a football player. They took the first step on a journey that, with any luck, will be anti-climactic in reaching its destination.