The appearance of the hate-mongering members of the Westboro Baptist Church Saturday at Michael Sam's first public appearance since he came out as gay was to be expected, if not anticipated, by the throngs of fellow students forming a half-mile long "human wall" shrouding the 14 "church" protesters from the first-team All-American defensive end as he entered Mizzou Arena to attend the Missouri-Tennessee men's basketball game.
The previous week, Sam had made the most public of announcements, with articles published simultaneously in Sports Illustrated and The New York Times declaring Sam's sexual orientation and dissecting the possible repercussions of his admission. While Sam is not the first openly gay NCAA football player (that title goes to Nebraska Cornhusker Eric Lueshen), he is the first collegiate football player with NFL draft prospects to declare himself as a gay athlete.
Sam's teammates were made aware of his sexual orientation prior to the start of the 2013 season. The Tigers, competing in the tough SEC, ended the season with a 12-2 record and Cotton Bowl victory. Former Missouri offensive lineman Max Copeland was among the people forming the "human wall" on Saturday. Sam's teammates kept his secret throughout the year. Evidently his sexual orientation had little effect on the performance of his team. If anything, it may have strengthened the bond between Sam and his fellow athletes.
Last Sunday, Sam appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The cover title states "America is Ready for Michael Sam,” but then in small print, a box appears asking, "Is the NFL Ready for Michael Sam?"
At first the article compares the athlete to Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King and even Jackie Robinson, but after some praise and fluff, it drills down to the conclusion that gay athletes are still at an major disadvantage and that many of them have suffered disappointments and discrimination in their careers due to their sexual orientation. See what happened to Jason Collins in the NBA after he declared that he was gay? Would he still be employed in professional basketball if he had just stayed in the closet? We may never know.
The New York Times’ response was as predictable as that of the Westboro Baptist Church. The Times article delved into the difficult past of the defensive end and the revelation that one of Sam's brothers was killed in a home invasion, another had "disappeared" and two others are currently housed in the Galveston County Jail. The Times recounted a tale of Sam's "adopted" family, Ron and Candy Purl, driving Sam to Columbia after his mother backed out on a promise to transport the athlete to his collegiate home at the last minute.
Monday Morning Quarterback columnist Peter King posted a column following the SI and New York Times articles filled with quotes from "unnamed sources" including two from a supposed NFL general manager. That GM suggested that Sam's sexual orientation wouldn't be an issue on his team, but would be on others. Another "unnamed source" said, "Unfortunately ... locker rooms are still stuck in the '50’s.” The same unnamed GM predicted that Sam wouldn't be drafted at all.
Twitter has been filled with positive comments toward Sam, from both current and previous NFL players. Deion Sanders, Shannon Sharp, Jonathan Martin, and Donte' Stallworth have all chimed in on Sam's sexual orientation and seem to agree that it should not be an issue. Stallworth was perhaps the most vocal in his support, spending an hour with Sports Illustrated discussing his admiration for Sam.
Still lost here in all the discussion of Sam's sexual orientation is the question of the defensive end's athletic potential. SEC Defensive Players of the Year have been taken in the first round of the NFL draft since 2006. Sam was expected to be taken in the third round before his announcement due to his size (6-2, 260 pounds). The NFL wants defensive ends like 6-5, 278-pound Jason Pierre-Paul, who actually played at Fort Scott Community College before he transferred to the University of South Florida in 2009.
Sam's speed has been questioned as well (expected to be in the 4.7 range for the 40). The question in the NFL is actually what position can he play? Hopefully there will not be a backlash if Sam isn't picked in the first five rounds, but once he is selected, which I suspect he will be, I also predict that there will be no locker room hazing episodes resembling the Incognito-Martin incidents of the past year in Miami.
The media will have its eyes poised on Sam. NFL players will be well aware of the consequences in the social media if Sam is razzed more than the typical rookie. I don't expect that he will. I do think that "America is Ready for Michael Sam.”