Here is a link to my Tuesday column about Michael Sam. The full text appears below:
We want to praise Michael Sam, who openly stated to the world he is gay. He is a football player, a good football player at the University of Missouri, and he recently went public with his sexual orientation three months before the NFL draft.
So, yes, we want to praise him. But what are we praising him for?
The answer — or answers — are not as simple as you might think.
We are not praising him for being homosexual. In today’s world, being homosexual or heterosexual or blue-eyed or brown-eyed is not a subject for praise or condemnation. As sports people like to say, it is what it is.
This neutral tone to the word “homosexual” is a new development in our society — in most societies. Not long ago, people used “homosexual” and crass synonyms — you know them — as pejoratives. Some people in our culture still consider homosexuality a sin, but most of us have evolved beyond that.
Sam deserves praise for telling the truth, for being brave. He is the first person to openly say he is gay before entering the NFL. What he did took guts. In addition to his courage, he is a remarkably poised, intelligent, mature and likeable person.
Please watch ESPN’s interview with him. You will be impressed.
But even Sam’s public declaration is complicated. He didn’t only announce who he is because it is the right thing to do — it is — but because things in his life were moving fast.
In August, he told his teammates about himself. He was pretty sure NFL scouts and the media knew about him. He did not want to be the victim of rumors and gossip. He told ESPN he was afraid his story “would leak out without me actually owning my truth.”
He wanted to tell his own story. He didn’t want his story told by someone else. He didn’t want his narrative misstated or ruined.
Brave. Smart. Correct.
In the ESPN interview, he said all that should matter is that he’s a football player. Can he help the team win games? Period. “It’s a work place,” he said of an NFL locker room, “people want to act professional.”
And that leads us to the NFL, to the various teams, to the various locker rooms. Will there be bad repercussions for Sam?
He was the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year and led the conference with 11.5 sacks. It is generally assumed he is a top-100 draft pick, third round more or less.
If he falls way below 100, shame on the NFL. It will be an indication the league cannot handle this news, this fact. But I don’t think that will happen. Sam, perhaps unintentionally, put the NFL on the spot. The league must draft him in his proper slot or lots of people will ask hard questions and write critical articles. The NFL is averse to bad publicity. Plus — and this is important — teams want good players and are, or should be, neutral about sexual orientation.
What happens in the locker room is a separate issue. Will he be a distraction in the locker room? “Distraction” is the word people use and it implies he could be divisive or take players’ minds off football.
This idea of distraction seems silly to me, unrealistic. He was not a distraction at Missouri. But let’s be honest. Sports writers like to talk about the “mood” of the locker room, that kind of stuff. I don’t know jack about the mood of the locker room and I’m reasonably sure my colleagues don’t, either. I am only allowed in the room at specific times. I don’t get in there when serious things go down, so I’m guessing here.
I imagine Sam will have no problems in an NFL locker room. Well, to say “no problems” may be a little much. Let’s say he’ll have virtually no problems. There have been gay players in NFL locker rooms, and teammates sometimes knew who they were. Teammates generally did not care and the players in question were not a distraction. It should not matter that Sam is gay. It should only matter that he can play.
There is something else. Maybe you haven’t thought about it. All eyes will be on Sam at the NFL Combine, Feb. 22-25. He will be the story. I’m sure he considered this before going public. I’m sure he’s prepared for this.
Media will want to discuss with him what the NFL general managers and coaches asked him at his 15-minute interview sessions. Teams know this — they better know — and will act appropriately in the interviews. At least, I believe they will.
I guarantee Commissioner Roger Goodell is acutely aware Sam is going to be interviewed again and again between now and the draft. Sam is a major national story. I guarantee the league is sending out a memo to all clubs with pointers on how to handle the situation. This is especially important for the league’s image after the bullying episode between Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito. The league wants to — and must — get this right.
So, Sam has allowed the league to prepare for the media storm that will follow him. And he has allowed whatever team drafts him to treat him with tact and courtesy, and to come off looking good.
Michael Sam handled his news exactly the right way. I admire him.
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at firstname.lastname@example.org.