Michael Sam did something no other active football player has ever done. The University of Missouri defensive star openly admitted to being gay.
At 6 feet 2 inches and 260 pounds, Sam was initially projected to be a mid-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft. He had a stellar collegiate career and was part of a 12-2 Missouri team that won the Cotton Bowl. He was a first team All-American and AP Defensive Player of the Year in the Southeastern Conference, arguably the strongest college football league in the country.
With that kind of pedigree, a bright NFL future seemed destined for Sam. Sure, openly gay individuals may have faced discrimination in the past, but America has changed, right? Our cultural climate has shifted toward understanding, tolerance and acceptance. Recent landmark Supreme Court rulings have granted unprecedented legal rights to the LBGT community, and a growing number of states have legalized same-sex marriage. Even the U.S. military, historically a bastion of heterosexual male values, has formally recognized the legal right of openly gay individuals to serve in the armed forces.
Gay rights have also been in the international spotlight at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Many individual athletes and nations have gone on record criticizing the Soviet Union’s law prohibiting gay “propaganda,” and President Obama sent a symbolic message by appointing a delegation to the Games that included former athletes who are openly gay.
So why the big deal about Michael Sam? Answers may be illusive and could reflect the tension between a stubborn locker-room culture and a changing world. Sports are steeped in tradition and generally slow to change. Football, in particular, has always represented traditional gender values.
Masculine identity has often been tied to the physical aggression and dominance associated with the sport. Football players represent the ideal male — big, tough, strong, and, of course, straight. Our culture is inundated with representations of players attracting the most beautiful woman. It’s no coincidence that Tom Brady and his wife, super-model Gisele Bundchen, receive so much media attention.
Sam does not fit the heterosexual narrative that pro football has cultivated for decades. In many ways, he is an invader, breaking boundaries and upsetting the status quo, just as Jackie Robinson did in 1947. One NFL franchise has the opportunity to fundamentally transform our culture and make a social statement in support of civil rights that goes beyond politically correct statements and expressions of support.
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Daniel Rosenberg, Ph.D., is an associate professor of sport management at Barry University in Miami.