Over the weekend the college football and NFL world experienced a groundbreaking moment as Michael Sam, the co-Defensive Player of the Year in the SEC announced that he was gay. This was groundbreaking, as he stands to become the first openly gay active athlete in any of the four major professional sports leagues. Jason Collins broke ground by coming out after the last NBA season, but has not played since his announcement. Sam, however, is at the beginning of his professional career and is a strong candidate to be drafted as a defensive end.
It is interesting to see how this plays out, as just six years ago a Purdue player, Dorien Bryant, was in a similar position to Sam. It is amazing to see the strides that tolerance overall has grown in seven years, as OutSports reported that Bryant's sexual orientation was still under scrutiny during his career at Purdue:
While in college, Bryant dated a male cheerleader, but after it ended, the player was outed to his friends. "I had to play dumb," Dorien says. "That could have ruined my life." After the breakup, for example, Bryant found himself the object of some gay-baiting by fans at Indiana State during a game.
That Indiana State game came in 2006, and it is a shame that fans at Ross-Ade Stadium would lower themselves to taunt a player based on the person he decided to date. Bryant finished his Purdue career in 2007 and had a chance to be drafted in 2008. Bryant also stated that he faced scrutiny in the locker room:
Dorien can recall several teammates he's certain were not exactly straight. "I think there had to be a solid six or seven guys, who-I'm pretty sure-I mean, they may not have been gay, but they would definitely get into bed with a guy." And while he says neither of them currently play in the NFL, he knows at least two Heisman winners he strongly suspects are gay.
That is still a long way from where we are today with Sam, who came out to his entire team before the 2013 season and was supported by it:
Sam had in fact told his team at the University of Missouri that he was gay last summer. It was prompted by a simple team-building exercise with a question from a coach: "Tell us something we don't know about you." Some of the team had already known. Some were shocked by the news. All of them embraced him. None of them told the media.
You see, this is the kind of reaction it should be. I am a straight man, happily married for nine years with a young son now. What I do in my own bedroom is no one else's business and I should not be judged on it. Would someone say I am not as good of a writer or not read this site because I am a straight man? No! That's ridiculous, and it should be ridiculous to say someone can't be in the NFL because they are gay. Why then should we judge someone else because they choose to bring someone of the same gender into their bedroom? I don't have to be there, so what do I care?
The NFL has multiple commercials per game about drugs that can enhance a man sexually and no one bats an eye, but the NFL is going to judge someone if they use those drugs to be with a guy?
In the case of both Sam and Bryant we should applaud them for having the courage to come forward with their lifestyle and face a society that, as we have seen in the six years between the careers of Bryant and Sam, is growing more tolerant, but still has a long way to go. As football fans that tolerance is growing, but it is very sad to see that the NFL may hold his sexual orientation against Sam:
Thamel and Evans also spoke to a scout who said Sam was overrated because he inflated his stats against inferior competition inside and outside the SEC and Peter King of TheMMQB.com spoke to a G.M. who thought Sam would go undrafted (and two who didn't seem to think it was that big a deal), but the consensus seemed to be that the same player with a girlfriend or no public sign of sexual orientation would go higher than Sam will go in this year's draft.
First off, really? The SEC is supposed to be the greatest football conference in the history of humanity, but a player who played on a team that went 12-2 "inflated his stats against weaker competition in the conference". To me, that sounds like a weak cover up. Second, I again say, WHAT SHOULD IT MATTER WHOM HE DECIDES TO DATE? Yes, it will likely be a bit of a distraction for whatever team decides to draft Sam because of the media storm that will follow, but Sam knows this and simply wants to be judged for what he does on the field, as he should be:
"Michael is a football player, not an activist," Bragman said. "If you start showing up at too many dinners and too many parades, you start to send the message to a potential team about his priorities. The community wins when he steps onto an NFL field and plays in a game, not as the grand marshal of a pride parade. He may do that eventually, but the first year needs to be all about football."
This is a guy that just wants to play football, but he wants to do so without hiding part of himself and his life. Is that so wrong? Six years ago Bryant felt he had to hide that part of himself and it may or may not have been part of the reason he never caught on with an NFL team:
Weeks later, during a game against Indiana State, Dorien looked up to see cardboard cutouts of his picture next to rainbow flags hoisted in the Sycamores' student section. Gay jokes and chants rained down during warm-ups. "That game was an eye-opening experience," he says. "I remember thinking, I'm not going to be able to do this for another six or seven years."
Injuries worsened his senior year and he disappointed scouts at the combine. Labeled an injury risk, he went undrafted, but after signing with the Steelers, X-rays revealed the hernia and strained adductor, both requiring surgery. Perhaps it was for the best. "Everything I set out to do, I had achieved," he says. "I had a great time doing it while it lasted, but I didn't think I could commingle the NFL life and the life I wanted to live."
Yes, injuries were a big reason Bryant never made the NFL, but as he says in his article, it may have been a blessing in disguise because of what he would have had to face. If he was not out publically and was facing taunts and slurs in his (half full) home stadium I can't imagine what it would be like to face in an NFL stadium.
Here at Hammer & Rails I have never tried to stand on an issue like this because we should talk about a player's achievements on the field and only discuss off the field stuff when it is something great (Like Drew Brees's efforts in the recovery of New Orleans) or something that needs to be addressed like the latest stupid arrest at Where Else. I wanted to write about this, however, because Dorient Bryant is still a member of the Purdue family as an alumnus and he had to face something like Michael Sam is facing now. He does not deserve to be judged and ridiculed based upon whom he decides to love, and neither does Sam. This world already has enough negativity in it. Why should we show negativity towards what someone decides to do in private if it doesn't involve us?
Again, I applaud Bryant and Sam for being brave enough to face those that are ignorant and would ridicule them for their lives. I also applaud Bryant for having a stellar career as Boilermaker and still being an upstanding member of the Purdue family. That is all that should matter. It is my hope that Sam is judged merely on his merits as a player, because that alone should have a say in his potential NFL career.