WHEN MICHAEL Sam, a top National Football League prospect, disclosed this weekend that he is gay, he presented his sport with a Jackie Robinson moment — a test of whether it can accommodate a revolution in civil rights, as pro baseball did when Robinson became the major leagues’ first black player in 1947. Robinson faced blatantly racist jeers from opposing fans and dugouts. If Sam makes the NFL, the image-conscious league surely will curb the most vicious forms of homophobia on the field; those same microphones that catch Peyton Manning screaming “Omaha!” during games can easily pick up other players uttering antigay slurs. But the league should make more than a perfunctory commitment to respectful treatment; it must also encourage teams to judge Sam and other gay athletes on their professionalism and performance alone.
Sam is an all-American defensive lineman from the University of Missouri, whose teammates supported him for an entire season after having learned last summer that he’s gay. What confronts him now is the skepticism of an older generation of scouts and coaches. The website of Sports Illustrated quoted eight anonymous NFL executives who all said Sam’s stock in the May draft has already dropped from a projected third-round pick, along with potential rookie earnings. One executive said antigay slurs were still so commonplace that a gay player would “chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.” An assistant coach told SI.com, “There are guys in locker rooms that maturity-wise cannot handle it or deal with the thought of that.”
Such comments should put NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on high alert, particularly since none of these executives seemed to be volunteering to change those attitudes. Macho culture runs deep in the NFL: Last season’s bullying episode on the Miami Dolphins was an unfortunate example. There’s little precedent from other major sports; NBA bench player Jason Collins announced he was gay at the end of last season, and has since not been signed by another team.
Yet the generational change on gay rights was clearly visible in Sam’s supportive Missouri teammates . That attitude was encouraged by Missouri’s athletic department, which prides itself on including sexual orientation in its diversity workshops for athletes.
That gives reason to hope that Michael Sam’s months ahead will not be as harsh as Jackie Robinson’s. At times, all Robinson seemed to have in his corner was his family, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, and a handful of white teammates like Pee Wee Reese. But Sam played with an entire team and athletic department of Rickeys and Reeses. The NFL can follow Missouri’s lead.