Michael Sam, a defensive end from the University of Missouri and The Associated Press’ SEC Defensive Player of the Year, said during an interview Sunday that he is gay. Sam, projected to be an early pick in the May NFL draft, could become the league’s first openly gay active player in history. His coming out, while newsworthy, seems especially polemic due largely to a series of recent controversies within the NFL over homophobia, including antigay remarks from current players. Although a full two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans agree gay and lesbian relationships should be accepted by society, one still has to wonder: is the macho culture of the NFL ready to embrace a gay athlete?
The league itself issued a statement shortly following Sam’s interview commending his “honesty and courage,” and saying the NFL “looks forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.” But several anonymous remarks from league executives and coaches published since make clear that not everyone is ready for an openly gay player. Those who express reservations about employing a gay athlete cite problems ranging from the distraction a gay teammate could cause in the locker room to the “commonplace use” of gay slurs by players on and off the field.
Given this mixed reaction, it’s conceivable that Sam’s job prospects may be less bright today than they were a week ago. Whether NFL teams choose to pursue Sam as a draft pick or overlook him because of his sexual orientation is their legal prerogative, as there is currently no federal law to protect gay and lesbian people from employment discrimination. However, if team leaders want to keep their fans happy, they may do well to note that roughly three-quarters (73 percent) of Americans favor laws to protect gay and lesbian people from job discrimination, while only 22 percent oppose.
Do you think the NFL and other professional sports leagues are ready to accept gay athletes? Let us know in the comments.