Michael Sam’s Biggest Obstacle: NFL Front Offices, Not NFL Players

Coaches who say the league isn't ready for an openly gay player aren't worried about team performance—they're worried about money.
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G.M. Andrews / AP

Yesterday, Michael Sam primed himself to become the NFL’s first openly gay player by coming out in dual interviews with ESPN and The New York Times, whose headline said it all: “N.F.L. Prospect Proudly Says What Teammates Knew: He’s Gay.” In the process, he effectively handed the NFL what could be a considered a Get Out of the Dark Ages Free card.

If public response thus far is any indication, Sam’s problem won’t be the other players in the NFL. It’s going to be, as former Minnesota Viking Chris Kluwe tweeted, the folks in the front office. While congratulations from Sam’s teammates, other athletes, and well-wishers flooded Twitter (his account drew 18,000 new followers less than an hour after the news broke), the eight NFL executives and coaches who spoke with Sports Illustrated on condition of anonymity were decidedly less optimistic.

"I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," said an NFL player personnel assistant, adding, “It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.” An NFL assistant coach called Sam's decision "not a smart move,” saying that it "legitimately affects [his] potential earnings." A former general manager alleged that his concerns were rooted in avoiding a possible media circus that might distract attention from the game: “Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to the Today show. A general manager is going to ask, 'Why are we going to do that to ourselves?'" Every single one of them agreed that Sam’s announcement would cause him to drop in this May’s draft, and today’s news that Sam fell 70 points on CBS’s draft prospect board overnight indicate an early negative response to his announcement. 

Collectively, this is a sad prophecy. But if it comes true, it’ll be a self-fulfilling one set in motion by the homophobia of the NFL’s front office.

Sam’s sexuality doesn’t appear to have “imbalanced” just about anyone or anything in college football. Not the University of Missouri teammates he finally came out to at a practice this past August. (“I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their heads—like, finally, he came out,” Sam told the New York Times.) Not the Tigers’ head coach, Gary Pinkel, who tweeted, “So proud of Michael Sam & his courage. Proud of his teammates. ‪#Mizzou has such a great family atmosphere.”

The NFL may never be, per Ta-Nehisi Coates’s assessment, “ready” for an openly gay player. There may always be players like Jonathan Vilma freaking out over the thought that a gay teammate might check them out in the shower. But as a videotape of Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper using the n-word during a conflict at a concert this past summer demonstrates, some NFL players aren’t even ready for black players to have a place in the league. Ready or not, gay men and black men are taking the field alongside them.

Hopefully, the NFL will get over its gay panic long enough to look at the facts. Because there’s no evidence that Sam’s sexuality changed the way that even players on opposing teams treated him, and it’s certainly not because no one knew. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch confirms, "There were subtle touches that didn’t go unnoticed among a lot of us, like the rainbow-colored wrist bands he wore on game days. There were the knowing whispers—and almost universal acceptance—among many students on Missouri’s sprawling Columbia campus that for perhaps nearly a year or so, the star of the nationally ranked football team was comfortably living a fairly open gay lifestyle.”

And Sam’s decision to come out of the closet certainly doesn’t appear to have jeopardized his performance or his team’s. Missouri finished 12-2 and won the Cotton Bowl. Sam was a first-team all-American and was named the defensive player of the year in the highly competitive Southeastern Conference. His teammates voted him the Tigers’ MVP.

So what’s up with the tut-tutting from the NFL’s front office? It may be that the big difference between their panic and the NCAA College Football’s maturity is money—particularly the big money that corporate sponsors and advertisers bring to the NFL and don’t bring to the NCAA. When an anonymous official in Sports Illustrated says, “the league isn’t ready for this,” it’s likely code for “We’re afraid that having an openly gay player on board means that ticket sales will drop, or male viewers will be turned off, or that Bud Light and Marriott and Pepsi and GMC won’t want to pay top dollar to advertise with us.” In short, members of the NFL’s front office may be afraid that Sam will compromise their brand.

Sam’s announcement sets at least three major opportunities in motion. First, his decision to come out means he’s now a potential source of company, inspiration, and comfort for every LGBT kid out there. Second, the evidence that he’s a better player now that he’s out than ever could mean great things for Sam’s future, professionally. What a treat it would be if he not only ended up in the NFL, but also shone as one of its bright new prospects. And finally, Sam’s entrance into the world of pro football—and its locker rooms—will give a whole lot of people the chance to grow up. 

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Nancy Goldstein is a freelance writer based in New York. She has written for The American Prospect, The Guardian, and The Washington Post.

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