We've been talking about the potential reaction to a phantom gay NFL player for years. While discussions about the fans and media have been peppered in, the conversation has always revolved around how "a gay player" will be accepted in an NFL locker room and how uncomfortable teammates may feel around "a gay player."
We're still talking about it, but we shouldn't be. With the big news earlier this month, we're no longer dealing with the locker room reaction to "a gay player," we're talking about the impending post-Draft reaction very specifically to "Michael Sam" - and that makes a world of difference.
After his press conference at the NFL Combine this weekend, it's clear that conversation couldn't be going any better.
The only way to change attitudes about gay people is for gay people to come out. Everything else - passing laws, straight people issuing words of support - doesn't affect a change of opinion in the public. They're great tools and necessary to the fight, but they simply help open doors for gay people to come out and affect change with their own actions.
Coming out is the most powerful force in ending homophobia because it's harder to hate an individual than it is an idea. Some people get caught up in thinking about gay sex and genitalia when they think about gay men. It's hard not to when asked to comment about generic "gay players." Lost in that is the person, his past, has name, his skill, his humanity.
The phantom "gay player" that's been the boogey man for so many conversations about the issue now has a name, a face and - most importantly - a personality. Michael Sam is a great guy. In spending time with him last Saturday, I found him to be gregarious and warm, able to crack a joke and bust your chops. He's got a firm handshake, he looks you in the eye, he calls you by your name, he likes whiskey, he sings karaoke. He grabs your attention when he walks into the room, his muscular frame filling half of it.
Sam will fit perfectly into the NFL locker room culture.
It's easy to vilify a nameless, faceless gay person - It's another thing to shun a funny guy with a winning personality who happens to be gay. That's Sam. Some NFL players have said they'll feel uncomfortable showering with him, but they don't know the person. The Cotton Bowl champion players of the Missouri football team know him - and they didn't have a problem stepping into the shower with him for an entire pressure-cooker season.
It's the same story for every gay-male athlete I know of who's come out to his team or the public in the last 15 years. While athletes may have "an issue" with "a gay player," they love their their teammates whether they're gay or straight. Like parents reconciling their religion with their gay child, even devout conservative Christians find a way to make room for gay people they hold dear.
Soon, the flip side - the team, front office and teammates - will have names and faces too. Given there's a 3% chance he'll end up with the New Orleans Saints, the recent comments by Jonathan Vilma about his discomfort with the idea of showering with a gay teammate will be moot. Even Vilma has, upon reflection and after conversations with Scott Fujita, changed his tune.
While the media has become obsessed with unearthing the feelings of every NFL player on the topic of gays in the locker room, ultimately it will be just one owner, one front office, once coaching staff and one roster of players that matters.
Gay people are more than their sexual orientations. Even as we have a specific person to talk about, our national conversation still reduces him to his sexual orientation. We need to shift the conversation and shift it now. The "gay player" now has a name, and it's Michael Sam. He has a resume, and it includes a unanimous All-American selection and SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year.
But most importantly, he has a personality and that personality was the showcase of his NFL Combine presser on Saturday. More than his playing ability, it's that singular piece of his identity that will determine the role he plays in the locker room. Leadership quality and likability reign supreme when the pads come off. This "gay player" - Michael Sam - is rich with both. That will make all the difference.