Michael Sam, Jackie Robinson, and Why the Bigots Always Lose

In the race for talent, bigotry is self-defeating. That's why the best teams across professional sports have often been the least prejudiced.


Michael Sam had a very good year meting out violence to his opponents. The 6-3, 260-pound defensive end helped lead Missouri to a 12-2 record, was named the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year, and, in other news, told the world that he's gay.

The question now is whether NFL teams will be too stupid to draft him as high as they should—if at all.

But first, a brief detour. There's a naïve, and willfully ignorant, theory that the market will end public prejudice. That the government doesn't need to (and shouldn't) force businesses to stop discriminating because discriminating is bad for business, so they'll stop on their own. It's a free market fairy tale that some libertarians still like to tell themselves about why the Civil Rights Act supposedly went too far. The only problem is we know it's BS. If the market were going to end Jim Crow, the market would have ended Jim Crow. It didn't.

But there is one area where markets have broken down barriers: professional sports. Talent is so rare and competition is so tough that smart teams look for it where others won't. They can't afford to be bigoted—or otherwise myopic. Sometimes that's something as small as the Seattle Seahawks caring more about production than prototypical size when it came to a quarterback named Russell Wilson. Other times it's something bigger, like the San Antonio Spurs caring more about natural ability than nationality when it came to Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. And then there are the times it's been a social barometer: like in the 1940s and 1950s, when teams started caring more about winning than whiteness.

Back then, it wasn't enough just to integrate, but it was a damn good start. Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line in 1947, and his Dodgers had quite a run. They won six pennants, got robbed of another, and took home one World Series title. Chuck Cooper did the same for basketball three years later, and though he left after just a few seasons, his Celtics kept the firsts coming. They were the first NBA team to start five black players together and the first to have a black head coach after Bill Russell got the gig in addition to his day job as their starting center. They won 11 championships in 13 seasons.

That brings us back to Michael Sam. The NFL office has supported him, but NFL front office folks don't seem to be. Before he came out, Sam was widely regarded as a likely third-to-fourth round draft pick. Now, there are whispers that he'll go much lower, if he gets drafted at all. Here's what some current and former execs said about it to Sports Illustrated—anonymously, of course.

In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.

This is an economy of absurdities. First, there's the idea that football is too warlike—"a man's man game"—to handle having openly gay players. Never mind that the men and women fighting our actual wars have handled having openly gay comrades without a hitch. Then there's the idea that homophobic language in the locker room justifies homophobic decision-making in the front office. Try replacing "homophobic" with "racist" to see how persuasive that is. And finally, there's the idea, again, that NFL players just couldn't handle knowing that a teammate didn't like the ladies. Unlike Missouri players, who handled it just fine after Sam came out to them last year.

It's not surprising to see such a benighted response. The NFL has very mythologized, very martial notions of masculinity that Sam is challenging. Teams that think of football as a battlefield where the manliest manly men prove their manliness won't take a chance on someone who doesn't fit their stereotypes. But teams that realize football is just a vicious game where the point is to win will—and will get more good players. In other words, the smart teams won't care who a player sleeps with as long as they're good at their job.

Even the dumb teams know that. A former GM said he thought coming out of the closet should and would hurt Sam's draft stock, and that only the best-run teams could handle an openly gay player.

The former general manager said that it would take an NFL franchise with a strong owner, savvy general manager and veteran coach to make it work. He rattled off franchises like Pittsburgh, Green Bay, San Francisco, Baltimore and Indianapolis as destinations where that could happen.

This is a remarkable statement. A former NFL exec thinks dumb teams couldn't draft a gay player, because that's what smart teams do. I couldn't say it better.

Not being bigoted won't help teams much when there's only one openly gay player. But as there are more and more Michael Sams, there will be a real cost to homophobia.

There's at least some justice in bigotry being self-defeating.