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Is the NFL ready for Michael Sam?

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In a culture fascinated by sports, it should not be a surprise that when a player tackles societal expectations, the game will be rewritten. By publicly coming out, Michael Sam, a desired prospect for the NFL draft, is set to become the first openly gay player in the NFL. But will NFL teams refuse to sign him as a result of his confession?

Michael Sam is a defensive lineman for the University of Missouri and recently completed his final season. The team finished at 12-2 along with a victory in the Cotton Bowl. Sam himself was awarded the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year and first team all-American honors. With records like this, Sam has been projected to be drafted for the NFL in the third round. So what sets him apart from any other draft hopeful?

Sam made headlines throughout the United States when he announced before the draft that he was gay. As of now, there are few openly gay players in professional hockey, football and basketball.

“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” Sam said. “I just want to own my truth.”

Enter the controversy: What does this mean for his success in the drafting process and the tolerance of the NFL community and its followers?

To credit the NFL, they publicly responded to the announcement via Twitter, saying “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. 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.”

However, the past gives less reason for optimism. Football has been deemed a “man’s-man game,” and homophobia still lurks in the shadows. Last year, Chris Culliver of the 49ers was quoted saying, “No, we don’t got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up out of here if they do.”

In response to Sam’s announcement, Sports Illustrated interviewed eight coaches anonymously. The conclusion was that most are unsure if football is ready for such a revelation. One coach hinted that it could take another 20 years before the league would be as ready as they claim to be. Another mentioned the concern that having Sam on a team would “chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”

But this chemistry statement goes against what has already happened. Sam came out to his team at a pre-season retreat, right before the season that took them to the Cotton Bowl. His team responded that they had known for a while and were glad that he had finally come out. And guess who was awarded Most Valuable Player as voted on by teammates? Sam.

Many have also spoken out against the anonymously surveyed coaches, calling their beliefs outdated. NFL media analysts and scouting directors have all predicted that this revelation will not affect Sam’s draft. The only part that the NFL representatives disagreed on was in which round Sam will get selected.

“In my eight years in draft rooms, the subject homosexuality never came up,” said Daniel Jeremiah, an NFL media analyst and former scout. “I would expect it would not have an impact on his draft status. In my experience with every team I was with, it was all about putting the best 53 players on the field. I don’t see why that would change here.”

With support pouring in from spectators and public figures, Sam is now focused on the draft.

“I may be the first, but I won’t be the last,” Sam said. “And I think only good things are gonna come from this.”

The draft runs from May 8-10. Best of luck to Sam!

pilkingt@stolaf.edu

Graphic Credit: MARIT AASENG/MANITOU MESSENGER