The news that Michael Sam had been drafted by the St. Louis Rams late on Saturday, becoming the first openly gay athlete in the NFL, was met with two very different reactions in my house. While I was overcome with pride and emotion at this historic moment, my two sixteen-year-old daughters—one a rock climber and one a water polo player—simply yelled, “Yes!” when they heard, and moved on to the rest of their day.
Our two very different reactions are possibly the most perfect metaphor for the history and the future of openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) athletes in sports.
For my daughters’ generation, there was no question that an athlete as talented as Michael Sam would be drafted to the NFL. What they know from their own sports experience is that what matters is skill and heart. But many LGBTQ sports advocates, athletes, and fans like me, who grew up in a time when being openly gay was a career-ender, had been anxiously holding our breath for three days. Then we cheered with pride as we witnessed the dismantling of what was once believed to be an insurmountable barrier.
Michael Sam being drafted into the NFL signals a new phase in sports equality. In the past two years, we have seen many history-making advancements. Britney Griner, the number one WNBA draft pick came out in a big way in her first public interview after she was drafted. Jason Collins became the first NBA player to come out (and then the first openly gay player to play in the NBA). A too-often homophobic NFL, however, had no openly gay players. Many people speculated that the sport was not ready for an openly gay player and that coming out would be dangerous or career-ending. Some still trotted out the bigoted notion that gay men were not masculine enough to play the sport at such a level. But the Ram’s selection of Michael Sam confronts and lays waste to these misconceptions. It shows an athlete can be both gay AND given a chance to prove his skill at the highest level of the sport.
Michal Sam’s journey is far from over. He will now have to work hard to make the Ram’s roster. He might continue to face animosity from players and fans. And there is also the added pressure that comes with being such a visible symbol for LGBTQ sports equality and for an entire community. As a former coach and sports equality advocate, I believe Sam’s strongest statement will be to play well.
As director of the oldest national LGBTQ sports project, I am proud to witness this moment. For over a decade the NCLR Sports Project has been working on behalf of LGBTQ athletes. Now we are at the moment in time where the scale is tipping towards all athletes, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, being able to play the sport they love. College athletics is becoming more supportive of LGBTQ athletes. High school LGBTQ athletes are participating in athletics while openly living their lives. And we are seeing increasing success including transgender athletes in both college and high school sports.
Sports will be made better with the participation of talented LGBTQ athletes. Athletes like Michael Sam help us prove that every day. We look forwarded to cheering him. We are all Rams fans now.