Michael Sam — the first openly gay professional American football player — is walking away from the sport just three months after signing a two-year contract with the Montreal Alouettes, and a year and a half after he made history by coming out. On May 22nd, the Canadian Football League’s Alouettes signed Sam, who publicly came out after completing his senior season at the University of Missouri; he has since been placed on the team’s suspended list. His decision to leave the team comes after a tumultuous year in which he became somewhat of a default ambassador for gay men in football. Before Sam, no openly gay male had been drafted to the National Football League (NFL).
Sam revealed his sexual orientation in an interview on ESPN’s documentary sports series Outside the Lines which aired in early 2014. In the 7th round of the NFL’s draft in 2014, Sam was selected 249th by the St. Louis Rams. Between April 1st and mid-July 2014, Sam’s jersey was among the top selling among all NFL players’ jerseys. On August 8th of that year, Sam made his professional debut with the Rams against the New Orleans Saints, and became the first openly gay player in the NFL’s 94-year history to play in a game.
The Rams eventually released Sam after their first round of cuts. He briefly played on the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad before signing with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes. His recent departure is no doubt related to a year of intense media scrutiny. From the moment Sam announced that he was gay, everything about his personal and professional life became media fodder. A Google search of “Michael Sam draft reaction” yields nearly 4.5 million results, many of which have to do with him kissing his then boyfriend — an incident that set American media on fire.
Amy Kushnir, a host on The Dallas Morning Show dubbed the aired kiss “wrong” because parents did not have a choice in whether or not their children saw it. She went on to say that she felt it was “being pushed in faces.” CNN also reported that a former NFL player called the kiss “no bueno” and commented “Man U got little kids lookin at the draft. I can’t believe ESPN even allowed that to happen.” In August 2014, ESPN news anchor Josina Anderson, in a report on the Rams’ training camp, detailed that she had been told by players that “Sam is respecting our space.” She is quoted in the Washington Post as saying that the players “seem to think that Michael Sam is waiting to take a shower, as not to make his teammates feel uncomfortable.” The report was more than merely inappropriate, it was — in this writer’s opinion — also demeaning. Yet the reaction is unfortunately is all to familiar to athletes who are a part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community.
A bit of history on openly gay male athletes in other professional sports: In April 2013, Jason Collins, formerly of the Brooklyn Nets, announced that he was gay, becoming the first openly gay player in the National Basketball Association. In December of 2013, GQ magazine did a feature piece on Fallon Fox, who is the first and only professional transgender Mix Martial Arts fighter. In August of this year, David Denson, a first baseman for the Milwaukee Brewers’ affiliate, became the first gay, active player associated with a major league organization. It has taken more than 200 years for gay athletes to fight their way onto the fields, courts and arenas in U.S. sports, though they still battle prejudice when it comes to displaying their athletic abilities.
Admittedly, Michael Sam was not the best college player; he was undersized, not particularly fast or strong for his position, yet he was able to overcome those obstacles and join the NFL. And as impressive as his physical accomplishments are, his off-field bravery stands out more. In a sport that champions aggression, Sam displayed vulnerability and honesty, notably by revealing his sexuality prior to the drafting decision period of the NFL knowing that it would affect his career. The resulting public frenzy — about who he kissed and how he showered rather than his athleticism — offers a stark example of the reality surrounding gay athletes in professional sports. Sports that will, ideally, one day recognize the talent of these men and women — just as they would for any other athlete.
– Mansour Abdur Rahim, Contributing Editor