There are no words that could adequately illustrate the respect and admiration I have for former Missouri defensive end and highly regarded pro football prospect Michael Sam.
In just a few short months, barring extreme and unexpected bigotry, heíll become the first openly gay athlete drafted into the National Football League, or any other of the four major North American leagues. When he plays in his first game late in the summer, heíll officially stand alone as historyís only active homosexual male professional athlete Ė among the dozens, maybe hundreds, who have quietly done so in the past Ė to take the field, court, or ice publicly confident and secure in who he is.
This, of course, is because longtime NBA center Jason Collins never found another job in the league after he came out last April.
Itís impossible to measure Samís strength, and that has nothing to do with the fitness testing heíll endure at this monthís NFL combine.
It takes remarkable courage and fortitude to not only reveal what he says teammates and many opponents already knew, and have since August, but to do so in advance of the draft. With two words, ďIím gay,Ē he put his career, his livelihood, on the line.
There are some NFL executives who will think twice about selecting the Cotton Bowl-winning first team All-American and reigning SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year in spite of his incredible talent, and others who likely wonít consider the notion at all.
And thatís pathetic.
Sports Illustrated spoke with eight NFL executives and coaches who, according to the report, project a drop in Samís draft stock on account of the uncertain locker room culture and the media circus his presence will create. Before his announcement, he was projected as a mid-round pick, with some having him going as high as the third-round.
ďI donít think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,Ē an NFL player personnel assistant told SI.com on the condition of anonymity. ďIn the coming decade or two, itís going to be acceptable, but at this point in time itís still a manís-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. Itíd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.Ē
An NFL assistant coach mentioned in the article said Samís decision was ďnot a smart moveĒ because it affected his potential earnings.
Having never spoken with Sam, only heard him speak eloquently of his views, Iím quite confident money wasnít on his mind when he divulged his most personal feelings to the entire world for its simultaneous support and ignorance.
Football is Americaís game. The NFL is Americaís league. Itís time its parties do better than represent Americaís divided beliefs and embrace Sam in unison, just as his teammates did in college.
ďI never had a problem with my teammates,Ē Sam told the New York Times of his classmates who voted him the programís most valuable player last season. ďSome of my coaches were worried, but there was never an issue. Once I became official to my teammates, I knew who I was. I knew that I was gay. And I knew that I was Michael Sam, whoís a Mizzou football player who happens to be gay.Ē
ďWe admire Michael Samís honesty and courage,Ē the NFL said in a statement. ďMichael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.Ē
Sadly, while a nice gesture, a blanket statement from the league wonít ensure Sam is drafted where his talent suggests he should be, or that heíll be selected at all, hard as that is to imagine. It doesnít prevent the locker room hazing and homophobic bias he may potentially encounter from future teammates or even coaches when he arrives in his new city for mini-camp. It doesnít remove the feeling of discomfort some will feel when Sam steps into the shower following a practice or game. Undoubtedly, heíll hear his share of unsettling comments pour in from across the line of scrimmage and the stands, and there's little the NFL can do about that, either.
Itís no secret the league has a problem, between punter Chris Kluweís reported dismissal from the Vikings for standing up for gay rights or details of verbal harassment taking place throughout locker rooms around the NFL, most notably in Miami in 2013. And, who could forget when players were asked at last yearís combine if they liked women?
The examples go on and on and on.
People are who they are, for better or worse. Those who disapprove of another personís sexual preference, creed, culture, or color are guilty of thinking that shall hopefully one day be widely considered archaic. Weíre heading in that direction, but any search of various social media platforms in the wake of Samís news will most certainly tell you weíre not there yet.
When Sam went to bed Sunday night, I hope he was settling in for the best and most relaxing night of sleep of his life. I cannot fathom the weight that must have been lifted from his shoulders when he told the world a secret he never had to share. I say that not because he should have kept it to himself, but rather in light of the fact itís not the publicís business to evaluate.
Iím happy to see Sam has already received support from past and present players around the league. I look forward to applauding the team thatís brave enough to welcome Sam with open arms and declare, ďHeís talented, and thatís all that matters.Ē That general manager would be the modern day Branch Rickey.
I hope, one day, stories like Samís arenít stories at all. Perhaps, a decade from now, when heís an NFL veteran, heíll be among the leaders of a locker room thatís welcoming to other gay players. By then, maybe there will be more than one openly homosexual player on a team, never mind in the league.
But, until then, Sam will be the first, a pioneer and a symbol for young up-and-comers and possibly veterans alike. As if it isnít hard enough being a rookie.
Three of Samís siblings, two brothers and a sister, have passed away. Two other brothers are currently in jail. The Texas native is familiar with adversity and heís coped with tragedy. By comparison, this is easy. Sam has yet to put on his draft cap and heís already displayed heís mentally tough enough for the NFL; I only hope the league is ready for him.
Thank you, Michael Sam. I donít know you, but I hope one day that changes and I can shake your hand. If weíre lucky, weíll see you in New England. The Patriots could use a player of your character. Oh, and another pass-rusher.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
The author is solely responsible for the content.
About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
Send Adam Kaufman an email.