On Saturday August 30th, Michael Sam was released by the St. Louis Rams, the team that drafted him in the 7th of 2014 NFL draft. By all accounts, the emerging LGBT-icon showed up like every other aspiring NFL player — a professional trying to make the team.
Though his dream of making it onto the Rams or another team has been deferred–at least for now– the impact that Michael Sam has had on our country and understanding the relationship between LGBT athletes and sports has just begun.
In September of 2012, I took over as the executive director of the You Can Play Project (YCP), an organization dedicated to ending discrimination, sexism and homophobia in sports through the creation of curriculum, programming, trainings and conversations focused on inclusion and diversity. Since 2012, I’ve been privileged to work closely with the NFL on various projects and initiatives including speaking at the NFL owner’s meeting. One of the primary goals of YCP is to debunk stereotypical and fictitious beliefs about LGBT athletes.
For so long there were a myriad of beliefs about gay athletes and professional sports. Some believed there are no gay players in the NFL. Others expressed sexist attitudes about gay men, likening them to women. Many leaned on the idea that straight identified players would be uncomfortable playing with openly gay teammates. And the most commonly used argument is that having an openly gay player would distract a team.
Before the St. Louis Rams drafted Michael Sam, the conversations I was having were still seen through a skeptical lens. Then, the Texas native emerged as this beautiful embodiment of all the messages others and myself have been championing about LGBT athletes; he was talented, confident and a gentleman by all accounts.
Michael Sam arrived with one goal – making an NFL roster. He wasn’t here to be an LGBT activist. Intentionally, he tried to pivot all conversations around his sexuality toward his passion: football. He understood that his immediate LGBT celebrity status wasn’t going to enhance his chances of making an NFL team and like other aspiring NFL players, he dedicated himself to making the team.
Yet, his mere existence has smashed to pieces the dominant myths about LGBT athletes. After announcing his sexuality to his Missouri Tigers family, the team excelled and won the South East Conference (SEC) Eastern division championship. Along the way, Sam won the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award.
After being drafted in the 7th round, Sam kissed his partner on network television for the entire world to see. With one gesture, he eternally connected the LGBT community with the hyper-masculine sport of football. Many always associated hegemonic masculinity in its purest form with this sport. And we all witnessed masculinity being redefined by a football player who is also gay.
While going through organized team activities (OTAs), training camp practices and pre-season games Michael Sam displayed the type of focus and dedication that coaches desire from their players and effectively silenced the conversation that he or other openly gay players would be a distraction.
Though many, included myself, dreamed of watching Michael Sam chase down Cam Newton or sack Colin Kapernick, the significance of this man shouldn’t be lost, even if he never dons an NFL uniform.
Whether a St. Louis Ram or Missouri Tiger, Michael Sam unapologetically showed up in the world as himself and disturbed the stereotypical beliefs about LGBT athletes that so many held onto be true.
It’s going to take everyone to ensure the world respects and embraces LGBT individuals. Some may exist as vocal leaders. Others as silent eradicators of homophobia and sexism. Regardless of how we show up, we all have a role to play in expanding consciousness and showing the world how to love.
Michael Sam showed up in the world and created a seismic shift in the ways we talk about the relationship between LGBT athletes and sports. Coaches and players like Jeff Fisher and Chris Long are seen as LGBT advocates, along with so many others. Yet we need more individuals to spark louder conversations around the needs of lesbian, bisexual and transgender athletes where the shifts are happening at a seemingly sluggish pace. And we must start to have more nuanced conversations around the ways that sexism and misogyny inform our understandings of homophobia and masculinity.
Creating the space for gay athletes like Michael Sam, Jason Collins or Derrick Gordon to thrive in sports is wonderful yet they all exhibit a stereotypical and “acceptable” brand of masculinity. I want all individuals regardless of gender expression and presentation to feel protected and embraced into a sports world that only says, “if you can play – you can play.”