And here we thought Missouri’s biggest challenge during the 2013 football campaign was beating Auburn.
The SEC East Division champs fell in the league title game to that other set of Tigers, but they finished 12-2 overall, won the Cotton Bowl, and ended the season in the top five. They also overcame what many would have assumed to be a team-splintering behind-the-scenes issue — an openly gay football player.
But in the case of Mizzou, defensive end Michael Sam and head coach Gary Pinkel, not so.
Give credit to Sam for announcing prior to the NFL draft — and risking millions — that he is gay. In terms of guts, the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year displayed a helluva lot of them in telling The New York Times and ESPN that he wanted to “make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it” and “own my truth.”
“I endured so much in my past: seeing my older brother killed from a gunshot wound, not knowing that my oldest sister died when she was a baby and I never got the chance to meet here. My second oldest brother went missing in 1998, and me and my little sister were the last ones to see him… my other two brothers ahve been in and out of jail since 8th grade, currently both in jail.
Telling the world I’m gay is nothing compared to that.”
It shouldn’t be, but check the internet and you’ll see just how big of a deal it is for football to finally have an openly gay athlete who’s just beginning his pro career. This was no announcement made post-retirement. This one will be dissected and discussed from now right on up through the NFL draft this spring.
Give credit to Sam’s Missouri teammates who learned in August — from Sam himself — that they were sharing a locker room with an openly gay man. There were no defections. No disturbances. Just a process of teammates learning not to lob quite as many homosexual slurs across their locker room. Hopefully Sam’s NFL locker room will be as mature as the one he inhabited in college.
Tiger linebacker Donovan Bonner tweeted yesterday:
Indeed it does. Which leads back to the man at the top of the Missouri football program. A player — whether teammates had suspected he was gay or not — openly announcing his sexual orientation could have been devastating if mishandled. Pinkel and his assistants obviously handled things correctly. The next time a Tiger fan questions Pinkel’s ability to run Mizzou’s program — and it’s absolutely laughable he entered last season on the hot seat — they should remember his handling of the Sam situation.
Stating yesterday that he was proud of Sam, the 61-year-old ex-jock added:
“Michael is a great example of just how important it is to be respectful of others. He’s taught a lot of people here firsthand that it doesn’t matter what your background is, or your personal orientation, we’re all on the same team and we all support each other.”
Sam — who led the SEC with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for losses in 2013 — understands that his entrance into the NFL will now be more scrutinized than many a first-round quarterback selection. And he’s not daunted by it.
“I understand how big this is. It’s a big deal. No one has done this before. And it’s kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be… I want to be a football player in the NFL…
I’m not afraid to tell the world who I am. I’m Michael Sam: I’m a college graduate. I’m African-American, and I’m gay. I’m comfortable in my skin.”
The comfort level of others when it comes to homosexuality is another matter entirely. The reaction to this will run the gamut from wild support to the kind of hate mongering practiced by Westboro Baptist Church.
This writer has always felt that those who are most ardently anti-gay are most often less secure in their own sexuality. I have had gay co-workers and gay friends. None of them have ever tried to convert me to another lifestyle. My life is my own as their lives have been their own… as Sam’s is his own. Whether he’s gay or not shouldn’t matter. He’s not going to send out some secret gay cooties to his teammates. He’s going to be trying to take down quarterbacks and tackle running backs.
Still, you can be sure Sam’s announcement will be a top news item for the next few weeks. Hopefully we’ll eventually get to a day when the words “Who cares?” and a shrug of the shoulders are all that meet this kind of story.
Until that day arrives, kudos to Sam, his teammates, his coaches and the University of Missouri for their handling of his situation. None of them could have done much better on any front.