Michael Sam and the Draw That Changed American Sports Forever

7.9.2014

By Christopher Glazek

He was the 249th NFL draft pick — that changed everything.

Photography by Richard Phibbs | Styling by Grant Woolhead

Michael Sam, the first openly gay player drafted into the National Football League, is a big fucking deal. This fact alarms many people — not least Sam himself, who mistrusts the media and who expressed skepticism, the day I met him in New York, that his coming out was really an act of courage, as nearly everyone has proclaimed.

Other facts about Sam have also caused alarm: that he stands at only 6-feet-1-and-a-half-inches, more than two inches shorter than the average NFL defensive end; and that, despite having been voted the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Sam was drafted 249th out of 256, the lowest pick — by 100 spots — in the history of the award. Some are bothered by the fact that just seconds after his draft, Sam gave his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, the most famous gay kiss of all time; others find it troubling that Sam is already enjoying the perks of professional stardom, including an award from ESPN and a lucrative deal with Visa, despite never having played a minute of professional football. And still others are angered by the fact that Sam has been the victim of an apparent double standard, wherein high-profile draftees like Johnny Manziel — white, rich, and straight — are celebrated for racking up endorsements and Instagramming themselves holding fistfuls of cash while Sam, who grew up in extreme poverty and has turned down countless sponsorship deals, is being savaged for the small steps he’s taken to capitalize on something that, despite his protestations, really is a huge deal: that the NFL, the richest sports league in history and the most macho show on earth, has drafted someone who is gay.

The extent of Sam’s courage was revealed by the events that followed his coming out. After declaring his orientation in an interview with ESPN, Sam immediately fell 70 spots on the CBS draft board, withstood online abuse from NFL players and team managers, attracted protests from the Westboro Baptist Church, and inspired a Republican lobbyist to pursue legislation banning gay athletes from professional football. Worst of all, he had to read disapproving comments from his own father, who told The New York Times that Deacon Jones, the legendary defensive lineman, would be “turning over in his grave” at the thought of a gay player in the NFL. Somewhat counteracting the negativity were the notes of encouragement Sam received from the likes of President Barack Obama, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, and football hall of famers such as Deion Sanders. None of them were draft scouts, though.

An integrated NFL isn’t the only “big deal” LGBT Americans have had the good fortune to celebrate in recent years, but for a community suffering from milestone fatigue, Sam’s announcement was significant — more significant, perhaps, than corresponding announcements from Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers because of football’s special relationship with American masculinity. Of all the major sports, football has the highest level of body contact and the highest risk of injury. Perhaps because of the inherent closeness of the game — and the intensity of the homosocial bonds required to build a successful team — it has also been the sport where sexuality has been the most ferociously policed. Before Sam’s announcement, many gays took it for granted that the NFL, whose brand is powered by manliness and violence, was the most hostile terrain of all. In January, Chris Kluwe, a former kicker for the Minnesota Vikings who believes he was fired for speaking publicly in favor of marriage equality, published a piece on Deadspin in which he quoted a Vikings special teams coach as having said, “We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and nuke it until it glows.” (The coach has disputed this account.) In February, just days after Sam came out, the NFL released a report about bullying in the Miami Dolphins’ locker room that detailed a widespread culture of antigay humiliation. For its potential to frustrate homophobic expectations and extend the boundaries of American masculinity, ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the NFL could be an event nearly as significant as integrating the military.

SLIDESHOW | MICHAEL SAM PHOTOS FOR OUT

While making history in the NFL, Sam has concurrently joined an elite club: the miniscule number of people whose reputations have been damaged, not enhanced, by an association with Oprah Winfrey. For Sam’s critics, his decision to participate in a documentary series for the Oprah Winfrey Network, a channel with a primarily female viewership, seemed like proof that drafting Sam would bring shame upon the NFL — if not by transforming teammates into “lustful cockmonsters,” to use Kluwe’s phrase, then by polluting the league’s heroic aura by mixing it with reality TV. Attention from Winfrey provided the alchemy through which Sam’s “big deal” became a “big distraction,” a term with no fixed meaning that has nonetheless played a decisive role in Sam’s tumultuous year (one of Sam’s agents told me he wants the word “distraction” banned and removed from the dictionary).

Top: Shirt by Tommy Hilfiger

Middle: Jersey by Topman

Tags: Sports
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