Michael Sam: The (gay) eagle has landed for NFL

SAM DE BRITO
Last updated 12:43 14/02/2014
Michael Sam
USA Today Sports
OUT YOU GO: College football star Michael Sam revealed he was gay this week.

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OPINION: People give Generation Y a hard time for a wide variety of reasons, however, there is a historic story happening in the US painting a goosebumps-rendering picture of just how far the younger generation has come.

Acclaimed college football player Michael Sam came out as gay this week, becoming the first athlete in a major American professional team sport to announce he's homosexual - at the beginning of his career.

After the NFL draft in May, Sam will become the sport's first openly gay player.

It's hard to overstate how big a story this has been in the football-obsessed USA, in a game heavily influenced and populated by the Christian-right. Yet, when you pause to consider how far ahead of Australia is the GLBT conversation in the US, it's staggering it has taken until 2014 for this to even happen.

Publicly, commentators and sports writers have been dutifully supportive - Michelle Obama even tweeted her encouragement - but what strikes many people as far more significant is Sam came out to his teammates late last year before their season started.

The Missouri college football team had 127 men, aged from 17 to 24, in their program this year, all of them from a world of different backgrounds, and every one of them kept their mouths shut about their teammate's personal life. No one blabbed on social media or leaked what could have been an enormously lucrative story.

As The New York Times reported: "Coaches at the University of Missouri divided players into small groups at a preseason football practice last year for a team-building exercise. One by one, players were asked to talk about themselves  - where they grew up, why they chose Missouri and what others might not know about them."

"As Michael Sam, a defensive lineman, began to speak, he balled up a piece of paper in his hands. 'I'm gay,' he said."

Sam is no ordinary player. He would go on to become the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year in college football's best conference. He's a monster; a lightning-fast pass-rusher who bashes quarterbacks, making life a misery for the sport's highest-paid, highest-profile players.

Sam will play in the NFL.

ESPN's Evan Meisel wrote earlier this week, tongue-firmly-in-cheek, Sam's revelation so "tore apart" the team's locker room, they went on to win 12 out of 14 games, take the SEC East title, win the famed Cotton Bowl and become the fifth best team in the country.

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"That has always been one of the arguments," said Meisel, "a gay teammate would be unwelcome in the locker room and definitely in the showers. A gay teammate would cause division, make teammates feel uncomfortable.

"Except that Sam didn't. An openly gay player at Missouri turned out to be a bonfire in want of a spark. His teammates nodded, and they moved on. There really was nothing to see here. That alone speaks to the power of generational change."

When Sam made his announcement Sunday (US time) drinkers in a Columbia, Missouri bar cheered. Students went out in the snow and added a giant "S" and "A" to the Missouri "M" at the end of their stadium.

Gay sports website Outsports.com, which landed the online exclusive to the Sam story, headlined their piece: "The Eagle Has Landed", while the Washington Post declared Sam's announcement "one of the biggest sports stories ever, but the timing ... could make it one of the biggest cultural stories ever as well."

You could argue the fact the American media has made such a massive deal of this illustrates how far we still have to go in accepting GLBT people, yet it is Sam's teammates who show us the reality of the equality timeline.

The moment is here.

Sure there were dissenters in the Missouri locker room who made snide or homophobic comments, but these are young men - footballers - in a sport not exactly renowned for its broadmindedness.

The fact the culture in Republican Missouri - at a college which in 1973 labelled homosexuality "an illness" that "should and can be treated as such and is clearly abnormal behavior" - shows the majority voice amongst Gen Y now chooses inclusion.

(If you need a refresher in the American homophobia of a generation ago, check out Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club set in nearby Texas, circa 1985).

This story is going to send powerful messages about gay men and masculinity throughout America which I believe will even be felt here in our sporting codes. 

When interviewed by ESPN, Sam's roommate, Marvin Foster, couldn't hide his bemusement at all the fuss: "This guy is gay, who cares? That's what the story should have been."

"I was actually happy, relieved, that he could be truthful instead of running around secretly, pretending that no-one knows. I am glad he could tell someone the truth," said Foster.

Because Sam chose now to come out instead of after he was drafted, all 32 NFL teams will have to process this truth; that a gay man can be just as tough and skillful on a football field as any straight man.

In this regard, actions will speak far louder than words.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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