The announcement by University of Missouri football player Michael Sam that he is gay marks a new milestone in sports history. This has been a long time coming, but we are ready.
The uncommon courage demonstrated by Sam makes clear he is a force to be reckoned with. The NFL team that has the wisdom and leadership to draft Sam will have a champion in the making. Sam will have the support of countless NFL fans and non-fans alike.
For far too long LGBTQ athletes have languished in the shadows, never daring to be open about who they really were and never able to live their truth. Past greats have come out only towards the end of their professional athletic careers. These men and women—including Martina Navratilova, John Amaechi, Billie Jean King, Billy Beane, Eseura Tuaolo, Dave Kopay, and Greg Louganis—blazed the trail that Jason Collins, Brittany Griner, and Michael Sam now walk. This is a new day, not just in the lives of these athletes, but in the future of every budding sports star and our entire movement.
Former NFL defensive back Wade Davis, who is currently executive director for the You Can Play Project, best describes the meaning of this moment:
“I thought about Michael in the greater context of American society, and it hit me: This is a black man, from the rural south, who is set to become the first openly gay player in the NFL. Paired with the NBA’s Jason Collins, his presence has the potential to reframe all the misconceptions about masculinity in athletics, about LGBTQ tolerance among African-Americans, and about homophobia in rural areas. I wondered if he truly grasped the significance of this moment that would change lives for gay men and women in sports going forward. Then I decided that it doesn’t really matter if he does. He’s here to play football.”
I love football and I can’t wait to see Sam play in the NFL, but I also know that his coming out and being out as an openly gay player in the NFL will have the enormous impact Davis describes. Prior to his coming out Sam was a great defensive player with an almost certain shot of playing in the NFL. Today, he is still all of that, but he is also a hero who is triggering a major cultural transformation that will open doors and make life better for countless future generations of young people.
There is still much work to be done on the behalf of LGBTQ people in sport, but today we simply honor a man who told his truth and changed the world.