Michael Sam and the NFL’s LGBT Makeover

Sports Illustrated featuring Michael Sam

Sports Illustrated’s Michael Sam cover.

Michael Sam may have just announced to the sports world that he’s a gay man, but it seems that it’s the NFL itself that may be forced to come out of its closet.

Sunday night, former player and coach turned commentator Herm Edwards came out early with what would become a central theme in discussions about Sam, the University of Missouri standout that just put the National Football League “on the clock,” as Dave Zirin put it (Edge of Sports, 2/11/14). Edwards, seen widely as a real “player’s coach,” suggested that Sam’s “baggage” might create problems for his future NFL teammates. (Salon‘s Josh Eidelson pointed out the asymmetry of that locker room logic, while former player Donte Stallworth dismantled it.) While some cringed at Edwards, his comments mirrored the worry that some NFL executives were publicly griping about.

But even as Zirin and ex-Viking Chris Kluwe, as vocal a gay rights advocate that you’ll find in the four major sports leagues, suggested that this posturing around “distractions” reflected mostly on the homophobia of league executives, it should be noted that pushback wasn’t limited to management. Kluwe  (Huffington Post, 2/10/14), who was allegedly released by the Vikings for his advocacy of gay rights, noted the parallels between Sam as a “distraction” and Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman as a “thug” (FAIR Blog, 1/27/14), but again laid the homophobia with “ownership, and GMs, and front office people, and coaches. Because they tend to be older white men, with a very specific viewpoint of the world.”

True enough. But some current NFL players and college scouts were also voicing concerns of “distractions” and “red lights,” if not outright hostility to the first openly gay active player (Washington Post, 2/10/14). League MVP Adrian Peterson’s “I’m not with that…but to each his own” attitude toward homosexuality perhaps captures many players collective response–one that offered more meh than cheers. Some Canadian Football League players were already being fined for anti-gay tweets after Sam’s announcement. Though public reaction from the NFL (which, along with ESPN, has reminded its employees of its anti-discrimination policy) has initially been supportive, one has to wonder if Edwards and company might not be alone in their anxiety.

Deeply religious players, many who can be found huddled in pre and post-game prayer sessions, might very well be keeping mum about their homophobia. It’s entirely possible that many NFL execs would more likely fall in line with the league’s image-conscious, politically correct business model that says it can’t afford for its homophobia to turn off viewers. The Washington Redskins are already under fire for their racist name; can the league afford the controversy that resistance to Sam might elicit?

This speaks to the genius of the timing of Sam’s announcement. A football locker room might very well be one of the most homophobic spaces you can find, but the league, much like a corporation, would be inclined to hide that side of its sport from the public eye. When players kept their sexuality to themselves, this was easier to do. The media certainly didn’t talk about it to this extent until Michael Sam forced them to–which is the key here. Whatever the future holds for Sam as a player and pioneer of gay rights, his announcement forced media to probe the league’s not-so-secret homophobic culture–and perhaps will force the league to be truthful with itself.