It is always infuriating when prominent members of the press talk about the creations of so-called “media circuses” as if they are helpless bystanders in the matter. This maddening phenomenon often happens in the sports arena, when journalists report about how organizations are weary of bringing in certain players due to the unwanted publicity it might generate, without acknowledging they are responsible for creating the undesired attention.
Take Michael Sam, for instance. When the Rams selected the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the seventh round of the 2014 NFL Draft, not a single player on the team publicly spoke in opposition of the pick — though Sam has later allured to a homophobic incident that occurred on the practice field. And yet, the media breathlessly covered Sam’s first training camp, seemingly waiting for there to be an anti-gay spat. When there wasn’t, they engineered one. That August, ESPN’s Josina Anderson reported on Sam’s showering habits, despite no Rams players previously raising the issue. Chris Long wound up delivering the perfect retort, tweeting that “everyone” was over Sam’s sexuality except ESPN.
It is “What If? Week” at SB Nation, and here at Outsports, we are looking at alternate realities in the LGBT sports world. Today, we are imaging a scenario in which the adults who cover and work in professional sports are as mature about sexuality as the players themselves. In the years leading up to Sam’s coming out, the only noteworthy NFL player to express any public anti-gay sentiment was former 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, who stupidly said he would never play with a gay teammate. But throughout Sam’s short-lived professional career, the cameras followed him, with revered NFL reporter Peter King explicitly writing clubs were weary of signing Sam due to the risk of the “circus coming to town.” Of course, if King and others covered Sam more like a regular late-round draft pick — as in, barely at all — it’s unlikely many of those concerns would’ve been raised.
Obviously, there was significance to Sam being potentially the first openly gay active player in NFL history (he never actually appeared in an NFL game). But the anticipated blowback by scouts and reporters seemed to be far more severe in theory than reality. The same can certainly be said about the NBA, where Jason Collins found widespread support from his fellow players when he came out in 2013, including LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. (Earlier in his career, Bryant was suspended for calling a referee a gay slur, showing his evolution on the issue.)
In our alternate reality, sexual orientation or gender identity wouldn’t be treated as a potential hindrance like an arrest record. NFL prospects Eli Apple and Darrius Guice wouldn’t have been asked about their sexualities at the Combine in recent years, transgender student-athletes wouldn’t have to face lawsuits just to compete in high school sports. The supposed adults in the room would act like actual adults, and let people live the way they were meant to live.
There’s no telling whether Sam would’ve made it in the NFL or if openly gay lineman Scott Frantz would’ve been drafted in our alternate universe. But we’re pretty sure more players would be out in the major male professional leagues, following in the footsteps of college athletics and the WNBA.
The WNBA represents a great peek into what our alternate reality would look like. In that league, diversity is encouraged. Its collective bargaining agreement is the most progressive in sports, including providing family benefits of up to $60,000 for costs directly related to adoption, surrogacy or fertility/infertility treatment. There is a big group of out stars in the WNBA, who lead the league proudly on a daily basis.
In this new world, the major male professional sports leagues are still conservative in nature — yes, at least nine NFL owners still contributed to Donald Trump’s inauguration and election efforts — but there are out athletes everywhere. They’re around the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, and every single team holds some sort of Pride Night. The notion of a club skipping out on Pride Night, or scheduling one during an away game, is laughable.
Much like in the entertainment world, the sexualities of individuals in sports aren’t scrutinized. In fact, multiple athletes have been spotted with their same-sex partners in public, and never felt the need to proactively address the topic. Heterosexual players don’t talk about their relationship status unless prompted, so why should homosexual players?
In our alternate reality, the major male professional sports leagues have finally caught up to everybody else. It’s about time.