By Nick Shook
The NFL has become a year-round attraction.
It started with the creation of the NFL Network 10 years ago, and the network continues to prove that its product is the best in America. NFLN started broadcasting the league’s scouting combine live years ago, giving around-the-clock coverage to a bunch of burly, athletic men running as fast as they can in a straight line (40-yard dash), running and cutting between cones and bench pressing 225 pounds consecutively as many times as possible.
But this year’s combine is different. It includes the first openly gay prospect. And that player is handling the spotlight excellently.
Michael Sam, reigning Southeastern Conference co-defensive player of the year, came out as gay two weeks ago. Positive response and negative backlash have come from all angles, with current NFL players and public figures across America supporting his announcement, and anonymous general managers saying he might be a locker room distraction.
With all responses taken into account, Sam took the podium in front of media members from across the country on Saturday to talk about football, his NFL hopes and, yes, his sexuality.
And boy, did he impress.
Wearing a rainbow-colored button reading “Stand with Sam,” the Missouri outside linebacker wasn’t afraid to address his recent announcement.
“Stand with Sam? I hope all of you guys Stand with Sam, by the way,” he said as he chuckled, with NFL media members returning the laughter. “Please do. I went to a basketball game against Tennessee and a very kind lady gave it to me and I gave her a hug. I’ve got a lot of support out there.”
Sam was instantly asked about his opinion on the Miami Dolphins recent locker room scandal, which included many homophobic slurs.
“I’m not afraid about that going into that environment,” Sam said. “I know how to handle myself, I know how to communicate with my teammates, I know how to communicate with the coaches and any other staff whoever I need to communicate with.
“If someone wants to call me a name, I’ll have a conversation with that guy and hopefully it won’t lead to nothing else.”
He commanded the attention of the room with an air of professionalism unseen in most prospects. Not only is he a groundbreaking figure, but he’s traversing into uncharted territory with a level of confidence that is instantly likable. Beyond his potentially pioneering journey into professional football, Sam honestly wants to be viewed as a prospect, not just a gay prospect.
“Heck yeah; I wish you guys would just ask ‘how’s football going? How’s training going?’” he said. “I would love for you to ask me that question, but it is what it is. I wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player, not Michael Sam the gay football player.”
For that, I hold the utmost respect for him.
Two weeks ago on my weekly sports-talk radio show, “Sports with Shook,” I compared Sam’s unique journey to that of former Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson, who was the first to break the color barrier in professional baseball. He faced an avalanche of racism, bigotry and hate for years, but the support of his teammates and organization helped him wade through the negativity to become one of the greatest second basemen of all time.
Although Sam is breaking through barriers of sexual orientation, his path is very much like that of Robinson’s. This is a time when society is seeing a cultural shift from anti-homosexual norms that were once hidden and unspoken to a time when it is no longer taboo. Just last week, Kent State students held a protest of the Westboro Baptist Church, which had announced it was coming to campus to picket against the suspension of KSU wrestler Sam Wheeler. The rally turned into a show of support for gay rights and a protest against any and all prejudice held against homosexuality.
One Sam remains suspended indefinitely and quiet, as the KSU athletic department continues to prolong his silence while the rest of the public awaits his statement regarding his tweets and suspension. Another Sam showed Saturday that he will not be quiet about his sexual orientation, but prefers that he be viewed as the NFL prospect who was projected to be a second or third round pick in the upcoming draft.
While many continue to differ on the issue of gay rights, one thing is for certain. Michael Sam is an admirable, courageous man, and a topflight professional football prospect.
For that, he should be cheered. Both on and off the field.