Michael Sam is gay. He's known this for quite some time. He just didn't tell you.
Sam said in his many interviews released Sunday night with the New York Times, ESPN and Sports Illustrated that he wasn't keeping the fact he is gay a secret. He told SI's Jon Wertheim, "if I was walking down the street and someone asked me if I was gay, I would've told them I was gay." Not only did most of his friends and family know, but his entire Missouri team did.
So why would it be a distraction now that the rest of us know?
It didn't seem to be much of a distraction for his college team. You know the Missouri Tigers, right? The team that made it to the SEC title game, finishing the season 12-2, ranked fifth in the nation? Yeah, that team. Sam was their best defensive player.
In fact, Sam was so good for the Tigers, he was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year. He was the best defensive player in the best conference in the country in 2013. And he was gay the entire time.
It may surprise people out there, but being gay was not actually a distraction for Sam. Being gay didn't distract him from playing football at an elite level or leading his team to a conference title game and bowl championship. Being gay hasn't distracted Sam from developing into a legitimate NFL prospect.
Being gay didn't seem to distract his teammates all that much either. In fact, when Sam finally told his teammates he was gay, they were relieved.
"I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their heads—like, finally, he came out," he told the New York Times' John Branch.
Sam wasn't distracted by being gay and his teammates weren't distracted by him being gay. Why is there still all this talk about whether Sam being gay in the NFL will be a distraction for whichever team drafts him?
Moreover, why are we still, in 2014, having the conversation about whether a gay player would be accepted in an NFL locker room or if this perception of him being "a distraction" would be reason enough not to draft him?
Why, in 2014, are media outlets polling their followers to ask if they would have any reservations about a team in their town signing a gay player?
How in the world are 18 percent of the people saying yes?!
Sam is a human being who plays football at a high level. His sexual orientation has absolutely no bearing on his ability to play the game. And yet there are still people in the world who not only have reservations about their favorite team drafting a player who is openly gay, but have no qualms with going online to vote that way.
(Granted, the votes are anonymous, but I wonder how many of those people would have any issue being outed—pun intended—as someone who discriminates based on sexual orientation.)
There are people inside the game of football who think this will be an issue, enough that Sam's draft stock may drop because of it.
In a sport where winning is seemingly the only thing that matters to every coach, executive and franchise owner, some team officials are so concerned with how their players—their professional athletes—will handle having a gay teammate that they wouldn't take him if he's the best football fit for their team?
Those people should be fired—not because they seem to allow clear social prejudice to impact how they do their jobs, but because they would be so afraid of a locker room falling apart over this that they aren't giving the players enough credit to act like civilized human beings.
Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman talked with several players in the game about Sam's announcement and chronicled a mixed-bag of anonymous results. One player who went on the record, quoted by Freeman from a previous conversation with NFL Network's Andrea Kremer, was Jonathan Vilma.
I think that he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted, I don't want people to just naturally assume, like, 'Oh, we're all homophobic.' That's really not the case. Imagine if he's the guy next to me and, you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me. How am I supposed to respond?
It's statements like that which make Sam's announcement such a big deal. Statements like that give fans the tacit authority to share opinions on whether their favorite team should sign a player who is gay.
There is a very simple response to Vilma's queries. You respond by treating a man—a teammate—with respect. You respond by going about your day like you normally would and letting him do the same. He is a human being, no different than you or me, who happens to seek companionship and love from other men.
That doesn't mean it's going to be you.
That doesn't mean you're going to catch something from him and the entire locker room is suddenly going to become gay. Contrary to what some people may think, gay people—at least the ones I know—don't run around assaulting people in locker room showers. That's not going to start happening in the NFL if openly gay players enter the league. It's just not.
Besides, it has been documented time and time again that there are a lot of gay players in locker rooms—particularly NFL locker rooms—both past and present. I fail to see how there's any difference between a player in the locker room being privately gay and someone who announces that he is gay, other than how it would impact the thinking of players like Vilma.
Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans tag-teamed on a story for SI asking members of the NFL if the news will impact Sam's draft stock. The answers they got are incredible. Take this response from a NFL player personnel assistant, for instance:
I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet. 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. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.
A decade or two?! What does that even mean? If you can put a timeline on when the NFL is going to be able to accept a gay player in the locker room, why the hell can't the NFL just collectively decide to accept him now?
(And let's not even get into the unbelievable irony of an NFL personnel guy saying a gay player won't be accepted because it's a "man's-man" game. Talk about low-hanging fruit.)
If we understand that NFL players a decade or two from now—we are talking about 12-year-old kids down to infants, by the way—are going to be so much more accepting of a gay player, why can't we, as a society and as a sporting culture, grow up right now?
Don't put this on the next generation. Don't put this decision on our kids. There is a player right now who wants to play NFL football and is immensely qualified to do so.
Accept him. He deserves to be accepted.
All we hear lately is how interest in the sport is waning and parents are re-thinking letting their children grow up to be football players because of the devastating head injuries that can ruin a person's life. In Sam, we have a guy crazy enough to want to play the game even though he knows it's not safe. The likelihood of him being a target for players and fans is higher than any other player in the history of the sport.
You're telling me there are people paid to work inside the NFL who would look at this as a negative?
Think about the amount of heart a guy needs to put all this on himself. Think about the kind of toughness he has.
Or think about how the other players might think he has cooties. As one assistant coach told SI.com:
There are guys in locker rooms that maturity-wise cannot handle it or deal with the thought of that. There's nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of the locker room. If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it? It's going to be a big distraction. That's the reality. It shouldn't be, but it will be.
If it shouldn't be, it doesn't have to be.
It's easy to assume a locker room might not be able to handle "a gay player." "A gay player" might be a distraction. "A gay player" might create a media firestorm. "A gay player" could fracture the locker room.
Only Michael Sam isn't "a gay player." He's a football player who is gay. He has a face. He has a name. He has an NFL skill set.
You no longer have to wonder if "a gay player" is going to fit in with your team. You only have to worry if a talented defender who led Mizzou to a 12-2 record is going to help you win in the NFL. If your current players have problems with that, get new players.
This issue is bigger than football, which is why the NFL needs to get over itself, right now. Not in 10 or 20 years. Sam could be a Hall of Famer by then, or he could vanish from the league in a year's time. He deserves the chance to prove himself just like any other player.
"I may be the first, but I won't be the last. I think only good things are going to come from this," Sam told the New York Times.
Gay athletes aren't going away. Sam took a huge step for himself, and thereby blazed a trail for NFL players that isn't just going to disappear. Sam said he doesn't consider himself an activist. He's a football player, but he has done something no other football player has done at this stage in his career, and there will be more like him in the future.
Let's embrace that now. Let's not allow people—fans and NFL personnel executives alike—to hide behind the idea that Sam will be some kind of terrible distraction that could ruin whichever team drafts him.
Michael Vick was a terrible distraction when he went to Philadelphia. The Eagles won 11 games and made the playoffs that year.
Riley Cooper made a racist comment that was a terrible distraction and nearly fractured the Eagles locker room this season. Not only did the team make the playoffs, but Cooper was an integral part of that run.
Despite all the media attention in the world at the NFL Combine, Manti Te'o was drafted by the San Diego Chargers amidst what was an enormous distraction both before the draft and after. San Diego not only made the playoffs, but won a game in the postseason as well.
Aaron Hernandez was a terrible distraction—albeit in his absence—for the New England Patriots and they came one game away from the Super Bowl this season.
It's funny how teams can weather distractions when they need to.
Sam is a distraction because of how the NFL community will react to his inevitable inclusion in their fraternity. Sam is not a distraction because he's gay.
He's always been gay. He's a distraction, today, because the rest of us know it, and now that we know it—now that all his potential future teammates know it too—it shouldn't have to be a distraction for much longer.
For him, for us, or for anyone else who comes out next.