On Sunday February 9, Michael Sam, a National Football League (NFL) draft prospect, announced to the world that he is gay. In interviews with both ESPN and the New York Times, Sam said, “I am an openly, proud gay man.” Assuming he is drafted, Sam would become the first openly gay NFL player.
The importance of Sam’s announcement was debated by my own tween and teen. My son thought it was a big deal that Sam had come out but my daughter did not understand the fuss. “So what?” she asked, “Why does it matter if he is gay or not? All that matters is whether he can play football and if he will be an asset to his team.”
The truth is, they are both right.
It Is a Big Deal
By coming out publically, Sam is one of several athletes paving way for the next generation. Sam’s coming out announcement follows ones made in April 2013 by NBA player Jason Collins and several months prior by pro soccer player Robbie Roberts.
Joshua Fredenburg, Gen. Y Television Commentator and Leadership-Relationship-Diversity Expert, says, “Athletes are a great influence on young people. Announcements like Sam’s will encourage younger generations to be more progressive and less likely to judge or bully someone based on their sexuality.”
Sam’s announcement also helps deteriorate common stereotypes. Unfortunately, some young people use the word “gay” in a derogatory manner to describe actions they see as not “manly” or making insensitive declarations about sexuality. Rap group Macklemore & Ryan Lewis explores this type of stereotyping it his hit song, “Same Love.” Clearly, there are straight men that like Broadway and drink cosmos (activities that are considered “womanly” in our society) and gay men that drink beer and play football (stereotypically “manly” activities). An openly gay football player in the NFL may help a closeted gay football player in high school feel free to express his own sexuality, without being bullied or stereotyped.
Whether Sam’s announcement will have a ripple effect in high school locker rooms remains to be seen. Sam himself said, “People will talk about the stereotypes of gays being in the locker room. To me, I think that it’s a little stereotyped that gay people are predators. It’s just very offensive.” Although there has been overwhelming support for Sam from his own teammates and NFL personnel, not all responses have been positive—two Canadian Football League players were fined for negative comments they made about Sam and his sexuality on social media.
Schools across the country have taken action with anti-bullying programs but there is still more to be done to eliminate prejudice based on race, religion, and sexuality. Irwin Krieger, a clinical social worker and author, asserts, “This young man's decision to come out at the start of his professional football career sends a message to gay teens that they don’t have to hide who they are to be accepted by mainstream society. It may also help those straight teens that have anti-gay attitudes to reconsider their views. This would, in turn, make it easier for their gay peers to come out and be accepted.”
One day, announcements like Sam’s will be no big deal. But for now, Sam’s bravery and courage are a big deal. By coming out, he teaches young girls, boys, and athletes to be proud of whom they are—an important lesson on and off the football field.