Yesterday former University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam announced to the world that he is openly gay. Sam’s proclamation would have been news if he was merely a division one college football player. However, it is even bigger news because Sam had an All-American performance last year, and is one of hundreds of prospects vying for spot in the National Football League Draft in May. Assuming Sam is drafted, he will become the first openly gay player in America’s most popular sport.
Immediately after the announcement many began comparing Sam to Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947.
There are many similarities in the two stories, and also many differences.
Like Robinson, Sam is entering a sport which has an ugly history of discrimination. Last year some NFL executives and coaches were accused of asking prospects about their sexual orientation before the NFL draft, in an apparent attempt to weed out those who were homosexual. Numerous NFL players have made derogatory remarks about homosexuals. Just last week New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said he would not want a gay man on his team based on a vague fear of what would happen in the locker room shower. Soon after the Sam story broke, CNNSI published a story citing anonymous NFL officials who said Sam hurt his draft stock with announcement, and questioned the effect that Sam would have on the locker room.
Robinson faced an even higher level of discrimination. In 1947 the South was still segregated, with African-Americans being denied the right to vote throughout much of the South. It would be another two decades before the Civil Rights Movement gave African-Americans anything resembling legal equality in America when Robinson came into baseball. Full-scale integration of schools and universities would not happen for many more decades.
In 2014 the battle over gay rights is largely over. A few states are still trying desperately to deny homosexuals the right to marry, but for the most part public opinion has shifted towards legal equality for homosexuals and the courts and legislatures have followed suit. There is still without a doubt discrimination against homosexuals, and an unacceptable level of violence, but there is no “Straight Only” signs at lunch counters. There is not the same kind of widespread and staunch opposition to homosexual rights as there was to African-American rights in the 1940’s through 1960’s.
When Robinson entered baseball African Americans were explicitly relegated to the Negro Leagues. There is no “Gay League” for football. When Robinson entered baseball he received death threats and verbal abuse from opposing players based on his color. Sam may experience some of the same, but it is hard to imagine that it will rise to the same severity as what Robinson underwent. The Westboro Baptist Church has announced their intention to protest Sam, but that organization is so extreme that it can rightfully be called an outlier in today's American culture.
However, on another level, Robinson may have had it easier. Robinson was ushered into baseball by a general manager and owner who finally saw through the stupidity of keeping talented African-Americans off their team. Robinson knew he had an opportunity. Sam does not have a general manager or owner on his side. For the next two months Sam will have to prove himself at the NFL combine, Mizzou’s pro day, and at pre-draft team visits. Sam will have to convince teams not only of his football talent, but of his ability to not get distracted by what will inevitably be tremendous media attention surrounding his entrance into the NFL.
In the end, comparing Sam to Robinson probably sets too high of a bar for Sam, but he can certainly follow Robinson’s example as he tries to break a different type of barrier in professional sports. Sam’s announcement is historic and courageous by itself, without making an unjustified comparison to Hall of Fame baseball player.