ST. LOUIS (CBS St. Louis) — It was February 2014 when Missouri All-American Michael Sam came out to the press and told the world, “I am an openly, proud gay man.”
“It’s a big deal. No one has done this before. And it’s kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be… I want to be a football player in the NFL,” Sam said in interviews.
Much of the public commended Sam for his honesty and courage. The NFL released a statement supporting Sam after his announcement saying, “Michael 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.”
The press came and went and Sam got back to preparing himself for the NFL draft.
Sam was projected as a mid-round pick in the early May draft. He was selected in the seventh round with the 249th pick by the St. Louis Rams and released before the regular season started. No one can answer with certainty why the draft came to this conclusion. However, it does beg the question if the outcome will have an effect on open homosexuality in the NFL and in other leagues.
Wade Davis, a former Washington Redskins player turned gay rights activist, worked with the NFL on Sam’s announcement.
“I think some will see how he was embraced and get confidence and others will see the fact that he’s not on a team as proof the world and sports still has a long way to go,” Wade says of the outcome.
Wade says the stigma isn’t localized to sports but that sports offer different challenges around masculinity and femininity. He says that while progress has been made, systemic and institutional change is slow.
“We as a society have to stop showing such limited ideas and narratives around what it means to be LGBT. Those narrow images reinforce stereotypes and hurt opportunities for LGBT individuals. So we must broaden our imaginations. It can be done and everyone must be intentional with our words and our work,” Wade told CBS St. Louis.
A concern some activists have is that athletes may be discouraged from coming out publicly due to fear of an unsuccessful fate.
“The NFL’s macho environment and hyper-masculinity promoted by sportscasters makes it difficult for players to come out publicly. Some are out to only a select circle of teammates, coaches and trainers while others are totally closeted,” Gordon Dunbar, Director of the Gay and Lesbian International Sport Association, told CBS St. Louis.
Some have drawn the undeniable similarities between Sam and Shane Ray, who was picked 226 spots higher by the Denver Broncos, and question if this is a case of homophobia in the NFL.
“While it cannot be considered irrefutable evidence of discrimination, it is fair to question, how much of Sam’s fall in the NFL Draft was due to the publicity circus around his coming out? I thank the St. Louis Rams for having the moral fortitude to draft Sam and to give him the chance to play,” Dunbar told CBS St. Louis.
Though most agree that the world of sports has a long way to go before reaching equality, several professionals recognize its progress.
“I don’t really get the sense that it was any rude awakening by the NFL. I think that the way society is going, it has no other choice than to do that. I think at this stage if you’re able to play football, they’ll play you,” Dr. Richard Lustberg, a sports psychologist, told CBS St. Louis.
While Lustberg says it took much courage for Sam to come out, that announcing one’s sexuality is a personal decision and not a requirement.
“I think that announcing one’s sexuality is not a necessary factor. I think that it’s not a sufficient thing to play. To come out and announce it was clearly something that he wanted to do, but it’s not like heterosexual players come out and say ‘Hey, I’m heterosexual’,” Lustberg added.
After being released by the Rams, Sam was picked up by the Dallas Cowboys and put on its practice squad. He has yet to find a job in the NFL following his release from the Cowboys.