Time for NFL to completely accept gay players

University of Missouri linebacker Michael Sam announced in an interview with The New York Times on Feb. 9 that he is gay, making him one of the most talked-about players at the National Football League Scouting Combine. The spotlight continues to follow Sam in the lead-up to April’s NFL Draft, with conversations about Sam regularly veering away from his skills as a professional football playe and toward his sexual orientation and the effect it could have on the team that drafts him.
The NFL was bound to have its first openly gay player sometime soon, based on reports of players on the verge of publicly coming out and former players saying they had openly gay teammates who encountered no locker room problems. These factors have led many to believe the NFL is prepared to have a homosexual player. Sam, knowingly or not, put to the test the popular belief that the NFL was ready for a gay athlete, and, so far, the league has failed to show that it is accepting of a gay player.
Sam’s decision to come out to the media is one thing, but coming out before the NFL Draft is a completely different ballgame. If a player comes out once he is already on a team, it is much less risky because if the team then releases the player, it is clear the organization wanted nothing to do with the player due to his sexual orientation. However, since Sam is yet to be drafted, any team that passes up on him can point to a variety of reasons to cover up the inconvenient truth that the team just may not want a gay player on its roster.
Even though the NFL and its players have been generally positive in their public comments regarding Sam and any other gay football player who wants to play in the league, it is the things that are being said anonymously to news outlets and other inconsistencies that are proving that the NFL and its teams truly are not prepared.
In an article published by Sports Illustrated, eight NFL executives and coaches spoke anonymously about Sam’s decision to come out prior to the draft, with the executives and coaches projecting “a significant drop in Sam’s draft stock, a publicity circus and an NFL locker room culture not prepared to deal with an openly gay player.”
The most bothersome component of this ongoing story is not teams’ public openness to a gay player and their private homophobia, but rather the fact that the NFL is not taking precautions to guide its teams along this bridge while it is being built, instead expecting teams to know how to handle a situation that has not existed in the 94-year history of the league. While the NFL does have a rule in place that a team cannot base a personnel decision on a person’s sexuality, it is clear that has not stopped teams from shying away from Sam, who was once projected to go in the third or fourth round and is now being described as a seventh rounder or an undrafted prospect. While Sam did not impress with his Combine showing, it would be naïve to believe someone can go from a solid third rounder to possibly not even making it on the board due to a subpar Combine showing.
A perfect example of the NFL’s lack of initiative in protecting Sam and aiding him through this first-time situation is that the NFL is considering putting microphones on all players during games, and making a new rule that any microphone that picks up the word “nigger” results in a 15-yard penalty. But why not expand this rule to penalize the use of the word “faggot” as well? A very large number of NFL players are black, but only one prospective player is openly gay. While both terms are atrocious, the word “faggot” is even more unacceptable in the NFL, since most of the instances when “nigger” is used are probably between two black players, in which case it is used without derogatory connotation, while “faggot” can only offend a gay player, Sam in particular. The NFL should be instituting rules like this, but it seems the league just talks about its openness and acceptance of a gay player rather than doing anything to ensure it is a non-issue.
The NFL and many others have been biting their nails waiting for a player to come out so that the league can prove it is capable of accepting an openly gay player. Now that a high-level college prospect has come out two months before being drafted, we are seeing why players have been so reluctant to come out of the closet.
Sam was supposed to open the floodgates and be the example of a homosexual athlete in a major United States sport being treated and looked at as an equal, but due to preconceptions and the NFL’s passivity in protecting Sam against discrimination, instead of being the held up as an example of a respected gay athlete regarded as an equal by team and teammmates, Sam instead may help the public understand why players do not come out until after they retire.