For every gay, black boy on a playground, basketball court or football field across the country derided by his peers as a faggot or sissy — excluded from games and told he has no place on the team — Michael Sam is a living example that not only can they play, but they can win.
“Can Michael Sam play football?” asked the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team. “Yes, I can. And the Saint Louis Rams know I can.”
In February, one week after the Super Bowl and just weeks before the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, Sam, 24, announced that he was gay during an exclusive ESPN interview. At the time he was widely slated by NFL insiders to be a fourth- or fifth-round pick in this year’s draft. His sexual orientation aside, Sam had already proven himself on the field.
At the University of Missouri, he piled up 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles in his senior year, sharing the Missouri single-season sack record with San Francisco 49ers All-Pro Aldon Smith. Sam was voted MVP and helped his team win the SEC East conference, before being named the co-defensive player of the year. At just under 6 feet 3 inches and at 255 pounds, Sam was compared to the Indianapolis Colts’ Robert Mathis, who led the NFL in sacks in the 2013 season.
In fact, seven former SEC defensive players of the year — Patrick Willis, Jarvis Jones, Morris Claiborne, Rolando McClain, Patrick Peterson, Glenn Dorsey and Eric Berry — were all selected in the first round. Sam, by contrast, wasn’t selected until the final and seventh round of the draft, becoming the 249th out of 256 draft picks. He thus made history by becoming the first SEC defensive player of the year not to have been selected by at least the second round.
As the draft rounds proceeded, ESPN sports analysts began to craft a narrative that it had to do with his lackluster NFL Combine performance. He was referred to as a “tweener” who didn’t have a natural position. Some predicted that he could possibly make a roster as an undrafted free agent praising his positive attitude and strong “motor.”
But the subtext was clear: After Sam came out, his prospects became limited.
Sports Illustrated published an article quoting unnamed NFL executives saying the league simply wasn’t ready for an openly gay player. Commentators echoed these sentiments, claiming Sam might create an unnecessary “distraction.” One went so far as to say, that having an openly gay player would “chemically imbalance an NFL locker room.”
So in the final moments of the final day of the draft, when Michael Sam was chosen by the Rams, the same team who in 1946 selected Kenny Washington as the first African-American signed to an NFL contract, barriers were again broken.
Wade Davis, a former NFL defensive back, who came out as gay after he left the league, is a friend and mentor to Michael Sam. In reaction to Sam’s draft selection, Davis told The Root, “Michael couldn’t play for a better coach. Jeff Fisher was my coach at Tennessee. When I spoke at the NFL owners’ meeting he came up to me and hugged me. And though it would be disingenuous for me to say that there weren’t teams who were afraid to draft a gay player, I think it’s not as simple as people would like to make it out to be. The truth is there are 32 teams out there with coaches and general managers who have LGBT people among their family and friends, who they love and respect.”
Speaking the language of the league of warriors he has just been invited to join, Sam told reporters, “I’m ready and I’m so determined to be great. There has been a whole [lot of] speculation [about] the first openly gay football player, but you know what? It’s not about that. It’s about playing football.”
But the truth is that Sam’s success — and acceptance into one of the last bastions of traditional views of masculinity — is about much more than football.
A 2012 study reported by the Black Youth Project found that 43 percent of black gay youth have thought about or attempted suicide. Twenty-six percent reported being the target of anti-gay bullying, and 90 percent listed “family acceptance” as the main factor that could make life more bearable.
Last year, a Rutgers University study about African-American gay youths concluded that given the disparate social challenges black boys face in American society, they often feel that being gay only serves to further hurt the image of African-American men. “Gay black males struggle to cope with intersecting oppressions — racism, homophobia and sexism,” explained Michael LaSala, director of the Masters of Social Work program at Rutgers. LaSala highlighted research that showed black males experienced more pressure to be hypermasculine, a trait characterized by the absence of overt emotions or the appearance of vulnerability.
Which makes Sam’s ascendancy all the more poignant. By simply being himself, he serves as living proof that an African-American gay man need not be divorced from his inherent masculinity. And he need not hide in the shadows for fear of being found out.
With greater visibility of men like Michael Sam, young, black, gay boys still suffocating in their proverbial closets (or locker rooms) may feel less alone.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter: @WyckoffWilliams.