Michael Sam’s national coming out took me back to a favorite TV show, the quirky sitcom SOAP. (Dating myself here.)
In 1977, the comedy featured Billy Crystal as one of the first gay main characters on network TV. His first boyfriend on the show was Dennis Phillips, the hot pro football quarterback portrayed by Olympian Robert (“Bob”) Seagren. Dennis loved Jodie fiercely but needed to ultimately wed a woman for his image. At the time, Dennis knew that the sports world wouldn’t be accepting. There’s a poignant breakup scene that happens, if my memory serves me correctly and it may not, in the locker room right before a media blitz.
So now, nearly thirty years later, defensive lineman Michael Sam announced his sexual orientation in the national media weeks before the NFL draft. The football locker room will finally open up to a gay player, a teammate who dates other men and doesn’t choose to have fake dates or cover wives. Sports fans expected this day to arrive soon. Responses have ranged from praise with open, welcome arms from some players to anonymous execs saying that the league isn’t ready, to folks who still wonder if gay football players jump other guys in the shower. (No they don’t.) The projections are positive because the kid is a badass football player who rocks it on the field in that special #52 jersey. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think that all locker rooms are equal.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
What we do know is that draft order, team needs and owner preferences will always be the primary factors in player selection. Sam is a top defensive prospect who plays the game like a beast. The first-team All-American stands at 6’2″ and weighs 260 pounds and earned AP Defensive Player of the Year for the SEC. Many locker rooms won’t lose out on that type of talent no matter who he sleeps with at night. Others wouldn’t touch him if he were the second coming of Mean Joe Greene. This may be one league, but each team has its own culture and some are far more stable than others.
Last week on Game Changers Live, Angela Taylor and I discussed the difference between the Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills locker rooms for Marshawn Lynch. The running back found a security and acceptance that let his play speak for him. Contrast that with the drama in two Florida locker rooms – Miami Dolphins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – and we see that location is everything. Sam would probably do just fine in an accommodating system like Carroll’s in a city that’s more progressive than most. Apparently, execs from the Patriots, Broncos and Packers have said that they’d draft him given the chance. That makes sense, as those teams have solid control and strong team culture. Sam may have a much harder time in a system that abides by a macho, my-way code that expects everyone to fall in single file.
What we do know, also, is that he was emboldened and strengthened by the maturity of his college team. Gary Pinkel created an environment safe enough to support his decision and still allow him to perform on the field to the best of his ability. You can’t beat that.
LISTEN: Gary Pinkel Interview on Mike & Mike 2/10 [SideNote - I was happy to hear that Pinkel has respect for women as one of his four rules.]
We’ll have to wait and see how Michael Sam’s NFL career plays out. He’s a young man determined to enter the league on his own terms. Regardless of his tackle record by the time he retires, Michael Sam has changed the game.
Will he last in the league? What team would be best? Give us your feedback. Send an email to fanhood@ sidelinepass.com.