When Michael Sam, SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year from Missouri, first announced that he was gay, there was immediate controversy.
Almost overnight, everyone in the sports world had an opinion as to whether or not sexual orientation truly mattered on the football field in 2014. As draft day continues to draw closer, one question still persists among analysts and athletes alike: how will NFL players react to an openly gay teammate in the locker room?
“I think it’s something for every team to work on when it happens because it doesn’t happen that often,” said Rance Hightower, Maryville College junior All-American guard. “If it were to happen here, I think you have to take it with a grain of salt; if he loves the game of football as much as I do, and can be a good player, he deserves to be on the field no matter what sexual orientation he is.”
Jonathon Vilma, New Orleans Saints Pro-Bowl linebacker, has already said in an interview with Andrea Kramer for NFL Network that he would feel uncomfortable in the shower with a gay teammate. However, his opinion might not reflect the majority stance. In a study conducted by ESPN, 51 NFL players were asked a series of questions about having an openly gay teammate. The results were that NFL players are said they are very tolerant of gay teammates. Of the 51 players, 44 responded false to the statement, “sexual orientation matters to you.”
On the other hand, some of the players in the poll felt like Sam or other gay football players would feel uncomfortable in an NFL locker room.
Now that the door has been opened, it is only a matter of time before others begin to come out as well. Especially with news in the NBA of Jason Collins, who is openly gay, becoming a rotational player for the Brooklyn Nets.
“His brave act may empower others to feel safe that they can come out, too,” said Dr. Kelly Battles, advisor to the Maryville College Gay Straight Alliance. “It will be a wonderful day when it is no big deal to come out, but since we aren’t there yet, people like Michael Sam are important to serve as role models.”
The fact of the matter is that Michael Sam is the first person in the history of the NFL to be openly gay, so there is going to be a mixed bag of feelings with players about having him in the locker room and on the team. On the field, however, sexual orientation has little to do with blocking players, throwing touchdowns, swatting down passes, or tackling.
“You want good players on the field,” Hightower said. “You have to work with everything that comes with them.”
It all comes down to how he plays on the field.
If he can contribute to a team and help a team win, then there will be little to complain about and Michael Sam’s sexual orientation will become an afterthought in the minds of his potential teammates. If his skill set doesn’t translate to success in the NFL, then Sam may endure some difficult scrutiny. Nonetheless he has broken down barriers already with his courage and has challenged many people’s preconceived notions about homosexuality in professional sports.