NFL will welcome first openly gay athlete

USA TODAY Sports

Last night former Missouri Tigers Defensive End Michael Sam announced to the rest of the world that he is a homosexual. The NFL has largely been believed to have the largest gulf in support for gay athletes, but is the gap of understanding and compassion as wide as fans and media previously believed?

Football is a violent game, believed by many to be the last remaining "man's man" type of game. The status quo of aggression and testosterone fueled group think has already been challenged in recent years by the public stance on homosexuality and civil rights  championed by NFL players Chris Kluwe and Brandon Ayanbadejo. Both of these players are presumably straight men and were no longer interested in being bystanders in the civil rights debate. Kluwe AND Ayanbadejo may have jeopardized playing careers with their public comments.

The reality is that while the NFL has likely had gay players on teams for a long time, the league (and its players) have been uneasy about publicly discussing sexual orientation. Despite stark similarities to the racial inequality found in the early days of baseball and football, efforts to move LGBT issues into the public foreground of discussion have failed multiple times. Players, coaches, and owners have quietly cowered behind fears of how the league would react.

Fifth: Many in the league are fearful of acting or even speaking on this subject. Quite simply, teams remain terrified of signing an openly gay player.

Yesterday, Missouri DE Micheal Sam told the world (prior to the combine) that he was an openly gay athlete. Despite the usual vocal minority wailing and issuing of vulgarities, the majority of fans and media members were openly enthusiastic and supportive of Micheal.

The fact is, Deion Sanders is correct. The NFL has had gay players since before it was called the NFL. Michael Sam has shown the courage to bring the inequalities to light, and to begin the process of educating the league and its players so that gay athletes don't need to hide who they are. Michael chose to announce this before the combine and the draft so the league could do right by him; he is a player that was already a lock to be drafted. (He was the SEC co-defensive player of the year, and proved to be a force in the middle of a dominant Tigers defense)

There are remarkable aspects to Sam's story. He told his teammates before the season was underway during an ice breaking session "one thing that they may not know about him" and chose that moment to reveal his great secret. He asked the team to keep it within the locker room, so that he could let the world know on his own terms, and shockingly, they did. Most of the coaches already knew before the announcement, and the "distraction" he caused led to the Tigers having one of the best seasons they've ever authored, in one of the most demanding football environments (SEC) in sports. Announcing it BEFORE the combine means that teams will draft him with full understanding of his background, and may have to deal with the media circus surrounding the rest of the players on the roster reacting to it.

I have always assumed that the U.S. Military would be one of the last remaining bastions of the "dont ask, don't tell" policy. Many journalists and service members assumed that the armed forces would be shaken to its core when the public stance of allowing all enlisted and commissioned officers to be open about their sexual preferences changed. The proverbial rocking of the boat turned out to be gentle as a tropical breeze; the world is far more accepting than it's given credit for, and I'm confident that the NFL will prove to be very similar. It was a non-issue for the military, and will likely be a non-issue after the initial bumps in the road. The world of sports is defined exclusively by ability, and as long as Michael Sam can get after the quarterback and stop the run, few will care how he defines himself off the field.

I'd like to applaud Sam for his courage and his open honesty, and I hope he succeeds when he is drafted by one of the remaining 31 NFL franchises other than the Browns. I'm confident that Cleveland will pass on him in May; not because he's gay, but because he's talented, and the Browns have failed to properly identify talent in most of its forms since the team returned in 1999. If he happened to be a punter with questionable hangtime, however.....he'd be in the discussion for our first round selection.

For Browns fans concerned about the distraction he may cause in Cleveland, shame on you. The Browns feature components of management deemed "toxic" by other league sources, have players getting arrested with hookers and illegal firearms, and those who have attempted to sell marijuana to police officers DURING practice. They party with Lebron James and troll the fan base on twitter, and we accept them anyway because they can PLAY on Sundays. This is a "distraction" the team actually can afford, especially when considering the possibility for some positive team PR in a tumultuous off season.

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