On Saturday, the National Football League will most likely choose its first openly gay player, Michael Sam, a star defensive lineman from the University of Missouri. It will be a landmark day in both sports and in gay equality, not only because the professional leagues of hockey, basketball, baseball and football are massive commercial industries that dictate a sizable portion of conversations in America, but also because they are perhaps the greatest collective shaping force for the American definition of masculinity.
It is likely that there will be comparisons to Jackie Robinson, who broke the so-called "color line" in 1947, when he was recruited to play first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. A star player, he received the Rookie of the Year award, and played on six consecutive All-Star teams. Certainly, the comparison of Sam to Robinson is flattering and apt; both are important indicators about a sense of inclusion.
But during Robinson's rookie season, he endured arrant racism. It is unlikely Sam will ever encounter such venom, as the NFL has already posted public comments about its sense of inclusion, while Robinson faced a petition from his own teammates to exclude him from the team, not to mention opposing players who unabashedly harassed him, sliding into bases with the spikes of their shoes up, trying to draw blood from the rookie African-American player. Moreover, Robinson's career was over by the time that the Civil Rights Act was signed into federal law; the baseball player was a true trail blazer.
No, instead, Sam is less a pioneer that a product of the times. By the time he starts his rookie year, nearly half of the states will have approved same-sex marriage laws and the president of the United States already has publicly given his support for Sam.
A few football players have publicly their muted opposition to the inclusion of a gay man into the league, but those voices are outliers; more broadly, the NFL has stated its support for Sam, congratulating him for his "courage and honesty."
Even so, and even with the outpouring of support, what Sam is on the brink of accomplishing by joining the ranks of about 1,600 professional football players as the first of that number to be openly gay, has the great potential to put him in the same historical company as Jackie Robinson—and, what's more, to serve as perhaps one of the most acute measures about how close LGBTQ rights have progressed toward normalcy.
The definition of masculinity
A year ago, I interviewed a gay man in Wisconsin who had started the largest amateur gay hockey league in the country. Over the previous three years, he had built a collection of teams into a league of six competitors. His accomplishment was impressive—and he was recognized by then-Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle as a "living hero." For the man, the league was an attempt to make a space in his life for a concept of masculinity that also allowed for being gay—two ideas that have been held at odds for most of the past century and, until that point, for this man's entire life.
"Masculinity," he told me in one of several interviews, "really has wreaked hell in my life." He had grown up in a small blue-collar mill town in Indiana, where being a man was defined by the stubborn idea of working hard, being tough as nails, and loving a woman. But by third grade, he had recognized that he was gay. He also knew that a declaration of his sexuality would ostracize him from his community, and especially, his tough-guy father—an assumption that proved painfully true. After he told his mom, she denied it for years, and he told me he can count on one hand the number of times he has spoken with his dad since.
As a teenager, he struggled to find role models who could serve as polar stars to guide him. When he was 16, somehow a VCR tape of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert landed in his hands. The film's storyline follows two flamboyant drag queens and a colorful rock 'n' roll transsexual as they romp across the Australian outback.
"I mean, I was absolutely scared," he recalled. He thought that this was what he would become. He didn't want that.
A year later, he ran away from home, to New York City, where he worked for Entertainment Weekly and, eventually as an art director for Out, one of the country's first and leading LGBTQ magazines. He was at Ground Zero for flamboyant gays and, he told me, he never felt more lonely.
But playing hockey in a gay hockey league in New York City was a way to square the tough-guy images from his childhood with his idea of being gay. When he moved back to the Midwest, he re-created a hockey league there, trying to make gay hockey as normal as a Friday night Wisconsin fish fry.
But even then, he was tortured by this gap between what he was told a man is, and who he was. At our second interview, he confessed to me—the first time that he had told anyone publicly—that he'd tried to kill himself after the final championship game of the hockey league's inaugural season. It had been a stressful time, and his boyfriend had recently left him, and in spite of building a community up around himself, he still did not feel as if he had role models to affirm his lifestyle.
Enter: Michael Sam
Gay men wanting a role model—or, at least someone to knock down stereotypes—could not ask for a better ambassador and warrior than Michael Sam. He is 6 feet 2 inches and 260 pounds; a formidable size for a lineman. His senior year at University of Missouri was impressive. The team went 12-2 and won the Cotton Bowl, and he was named first-team all-American and honored as the Associated Press defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, arguably the top league in college football. What's more telling is that his teammates voted him the University of Missouri's most valuable player, even after he had come out to his teammates during the pre-season. (Sam told his teammates that he is gay during a preseason team-bonding meeting, but his sexual orientation was not national news until after the football season, when ESPN ran a story about him in February.)
Sam is affable and easily likable, and his personal story adds a certain heft to his hero status. He grew up in a hard-scrabbled Texas town, about 40 miles southeast of Houston. The seventh of eight children, he has plainly explained that he had a tough childhood; three of his siblings have died, and two brothers are in prison. He never expected to go to college, but he had a coach who encouraged him, and helped him find a scholarship. Even then, Sam knew that he was gay, but he also has explained that he saw football as an avenue out of a dead-end life—but, simultaneously that his sexuality was mutually exclusive from any of those opportunities and scholarships that sports, like football, offered.
A year ago—and months before Sam announced his sexuality—Jason Collins, a 12 year veteran of the NBA, told Sports Illustrated that he is gay. Although an aging and middling player, the news was major headline news—and, although he played very little during this past season (in late February, he signed a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets), it is a powerful testament that on the day that Collin debuted for what will probably be his final season—and in spite of only scoring a few un-illustrious points—that his jersey became the number one selling piece of NBA merchandise that day, outselling even superstars like LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Moreover, in spite of Collins' brief season—and one with no major on-the-court contributions or highlight reels worthy of ESPN—two weeks ago, Collins was named one of TIME Magazine's most 100 influential people in America—the only NBA player to be included in the heady list, and with none other than Chelsea Clinton writing a supportive essay about him.
Yet, such public display of support for marquee players, like Collins and Sam, remain at painful odds with a more widespread and everyday struggles for LGBTQ athletes.
When Sam publicly announced in February that he was gay, his father told the New York Times that former Los Angeles Rams star defensive end Deacon Jones was "turning over in his grave."
And, it is that gap between broad social support, and the more intimate, closer-to-home acceptance for thousands of young athletes by their family members which will be more unbudging in the upcoming years; in the trenches of PE classes and high school sports, the acceptance for LGBTQ athletes is still unforgiving.
A 2011 wide-reaching survey of middle- and high-school students gathered from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data and other information found that more than half of LGBT students who took a PE class were bullied or harassed, because of their sexual orientation or gender expression. Moreover, 32.5% of LGBT students avoided attending PE class, 39% avoided locker rooms, and 22.8% avoided athletic fields.
Ultimately, only one-quarter of LGBTQ students participate in interscholastic sports—half the rate of their straight peers. While the study did not directly correlate that the exclusion felt by LGBTQ students with their decision to avoid sports, or an aversion to playing organized sports, it did note that more than one quarter of LGBTQ students who do participate in organized athletics reported experiencing harassment or assault while playing sports due to their sexual orientation or gender expression. Moreover, a mere 6% of LGBT students said they were in a leadership or captain role on their team.
Sam won't be the first openly gay athlete. But he stands to be the first openly gay player in the NFL, and the first recruited and "invited" into a major sport—and that significance cannot be undersold. Until this moment in sports history, at their most generous, gay and lesbian athletes primarily have been "allowed" in certain sports, like ice dancing, as if somehow those more flamboyant sports were not as big a challenge to the predominant notion of masculinity. Certainly, the former national champion ice skater and Olympic competitor Johnny Weir's recent stint as an NBC sports commentator for the 2014 Winter Olympics, and at last Saturday's Kentucky Derby, do more to reinforce narrow stereotypes about gay men than to provide any indicators as an average-guy role model. But Sam is different in how much he is like any other defensive lineman. And that will be a landmark.