The night before Michael Sam came out publicly a decade ago — a week after Super Bowl XLVIII — he was on top of the world, singing karaoke (pretty well, actually) with a bunch of us in a bar on Melrose Ave. in West Hollywood. As we in the small group gathering to celebrate texted with other journalists to quell the rumors of Sam’s impending coming out, the man of the hour was all smiles.
That entire weekend with Sam — sitting down for a mock interview to give him some experience, dinner with some people who would support him — he exuded confidence, a unanimous All-American ready to take on the world, break down barriers for gay athletes and establish his own NFL career.
Hours later — a decade ago today — Sam became the biggest news story in America, sharing publicly that he was gay. We’d never seen someone with so much on the line in any profession choose to come out to the world.
His confidence was matched by his courage.
The rest, as they say, is history. While he played in the preseason for the then-St. Louis Rams, he managed only to make the practice squad for the Dallas Cowboys, eventually playing in one CFL game but never earning that historical monicker as the first out gay athlete to play in a regular-season NFL game, something Carl Nassib would do seven years later.
It’s a history that is, on a couple levels, both unknown and misunderstood.
No, Michael Sam was not ‘too distracted’ to succeed in the NFL
To this day, I get people making a bunch of claims about Michael Sam, most notably: “Dancing With The Stars showed he wasn’t committed to football.” Months after being passed over by every NFL team, Sam agreed to appear on the ABC show.
I had a lot of conversations with Sam, particularly in that first year. He was committed to football.
He and his agents were also realistic. Not one of the 32 NFL teams was interested in signing him after his first season.
Reality TV offered a potential nest egg, given no NFL team offered even a non-binding futures contract at the time.
A similar “he wasn’t really committed” refrain echoed through the halls of the media when it was announced that a documentary-film crew would follow him in his first few months trying to make it in the NFL.
He was too focused on “the media,” people claimed.
Except, as his former publicist the late Howard Bragman said when Sam came out: “Part of the strategy is to announce it once, announce it well and let Michael focus on his football.”
That’s what he did. Sam was nearly silent for months at the time, when the rest of his fellow Draft prospects were begging for media attention and grabbing every chance to hop on ESPN.
At Super Bowl LVIII this week, I was chatting with another member of the media about this 10-year anniversary. He again shared this false notion that Sam wouldn’t stop doing media interviews. Because of the boatload of media attention Sam received, the falsehood lingers.
So why did Sam never play an NFL regular-season game?
The reality is that, for various reason, too many people didn’t want to take a leap with Sam. While he excelled his senior season at Missouri, he never convinced anyone with his playing ability — in training camp, in the preseason, on a practice squad or at the Veteran Combine — that he’d be a good or great payer in the NFL.
If he had been Jadeveon Clowney and publicly out as gay, he would have played many seasons in the NFL.
On top of that, some people didn’t like Oprah’s cameras following him. Some didn’t like his personality. Some didn’t like his size. Some didn’t like how he flamed out with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes.
Sadly Sam, in part by his own doing, simply could never earn the confidence of an NFL coach who might take a shot on him. And while him being gay is not why he never made it in the NFL, there were undoubtedly people who didn’t give him a second look because of it.
Like so many others with an NFL dream, sadly, Sam never got his big chance.
What is the state of gay acceptance in the NFL?
Since Sam’s untimely departure from the NFL, the front offices of the league and many teams have gone out of their way to demonstrate to LGBTQ fans that they are welcome.
Yet not a lot is done to make that message loud and clear to gay and bi players. As a result, there is currently not a single active player who’s publicly out.
“The brutal honest truth is that we’re a long way from where we need to be,” said former wide receive Kenny Stills, who played most of his nine-year NFL career with the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins. “We are making progress. The optimistic person in me focuses on that.
“But the locker room and the football world is a very tough place to crack.”
What makes it so tough? The language in and around locker rooms.
When I ask players and coaches if gay-positive messages are shared in the locker room, it’s always the same: “No one really talks about it.” That’s meant as a positive thing, that negative things aren’t said. But for a league and sport with a reputation of not having out athletes and coaches, changing that takes positive conversations from athletes and coaches, both publicly and privately.
That’s just not happening enough.
Somebody who knows that well is Jacksonville Jaguars strength coach Kevin Maxen, who came out to his team and publicly last summer.
Maxen was the latest man in the NFL to find the courage to look through the locker-room language and machismo of a men’s football environment, and trust that he would find acceptance in the league.
When asked during Super Bowl week about the level of acceptance of gay teammates and coaches in the NFL for people who actually come out, Maxen had two words:
While it may be slight hyperbole — out of 1,600 players and hundreds of coaches, somebody cares — Maxen’s point is duly noted. Despite some off-color locker-room language in football, guys are there to do a job and they’re not concerned about whom you’re sleeping with.
Chiefs head strength coach Ryan Reynolds shared Maxen’s observation. Reynolds knew Maxen before he came out, as the two coaches both have ties to the University of Iowa.
Reynolds called Maxen “a good coach,” adding “I’ve identified him as a quality candidate.”
He said that Maxen’s career going forward shouldn’t be affected by him being gay, and that it certainly wouldn’t on his staff.
“To me, it doesn’t matter,” Reynolds said. “I just evaluate someone on their ability to coach. If you can interact well with the guys, you can interact with the guys.”
That “interacting with the guys” can certainly be a sticking point. Some straight men — particularly older men and those engrossed in the “masculine” sport of football — could automatically perceive a gay man as unable to “interact with the guys.”
That perception is not an issue with Maxen, who exudes masculinity and seems created by god to be a strength coach in football.
Yet to Stills’ point, the “straight” language in and around locker rooms can certainly give someone pause before adding a gay man to the situation, despite out gay athletes like Scott Frantz and Carl Nassib thriving for a couple years in big-time football locker rooms after coming out.
“I wouldn’t think any locker room would be like that,” former NFL kicker Jay Feely said. He knows a thing or two about NFL locker rooms, having participated in at least six of them, most notably the Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals. “That’s not the locker rooms I saw in the NFL. You treat people the way you want to be treated.
“It’s an area where I was always able to learn about people I might not have been exposed to in my life. I always thought that was one of the greatest advantages of playing football and playing int he NFL.”
While the widespread belief when Sam came out was that people wouldn’t accept him, same-sex marriage is now legal everywhere, and we’ve seen out people succeed in the NFL.
Acceptance levels are way higher than in 2014, and the perception of acceptance has improved.
How do we put the perception of homophobia in the NFL to bed forever? We need more courageous players and coaches to come out publicly.
Ultimately, that is the only way to forever change the perception of the league, even a decade after Sam elevated the conversation to a whole new level.