How Big a Deal Is the Prospect of an Openly Gay NFL Player?

If Michael Sam makes it to the pros, it marks the endpoint of a culturally problematic attitude about homosexuality


What we really can't predict is whether stupid homoerotic references to "tight ends" will increase or decrease.

Is America ready for an openly gay NFL player?

Yes, of course. That's kind of a silly question if you think about it in terms of how the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" played out.

Did you forget about that? So did everybody else. Despite the fear-mongering that it would affect morale, there seems to have been little actual impact in allowing gay men and women serving openly in the military.

I noted in my end-of-year review about how amazingly gay I found the year 2013 that pretty much the last threshold for cultural gay tolerance to be hammered out in the United States was in professional sports. Though there are openly gay male athletes in the less prominent professional sports like soccer and boxing, we still do not have an openly gay male athletes currently competing in professional baseball, basketball or football.

Then this weekend, Michael Sam, a top lineman from the University of Missouri, came out of the closet (to the media – this teammates already knew). It matters because he's apparently a good enough player to make the transition to the NFL. If he's drafted in May, he would become the first openly gay actively competing football player. That's assuming no existing players come out of the closet in the meantime.

That the media is making such a big deal out of Sam may seem a little strange, particularly to those who are and have always been down with the gay folks. It's helpful to consider the idea that we're writing the last chapter in a very lengthy book of American history. The advancement and acceptance of an openly gay male pro athlete (sorry pioneering ladies – we know you were first) is the final stage of cultural acceptance of gay people living openly and happily without having to hide who they are. The Onion, in their usual fashion, made a joke out of it in August that's funny but insightful: "Area Teen Quickly Running Out Of Chances To Be First Openly Gay Anything."

Obviously, there are still so many more conflicts and debates about how gay people are treated by the law and what "rights" apply (scare quotes due to the fundamental cultural disagreement about what even constitutes a right). Today gay couples filed suit in Ohio to force the state to recognize their marriages, a battle being replicated in several states right now.

And though homophobia may be on the decline, it's naïve to think it's going to fade into nothingness. Racism and sexism still exist. There's always some sort of justification for believing some humans should be treated as lesser to others for reasons that should have no actual bearing.  

But all eyes are on Sam because this is the final doorway in America for cultural acceptance. It marks the end of certain silly ideas about how masculinity informs sexuality that have had lasting impacts on the psyches of straights and gays alike for decades. It's a huge deal, though the impact may not be fully grasped except in retrospect years from now.