Argue as much as you like, but it’s a fact: There’s no more powerful cultural force in America than a bunch of men tossing the pigskin on the gridiron. That’s why, when NFL prospect Michael Sam came out publicly in February of this year, he instantaneously became the most powerful LGBT athlete in America, if not the world. While Robbie Rogers, Jason Collins, Brittney Griner, and others have come before him, no one now holds the cultural power and influence of Sam.
Why? Half of Americans call football their favorite sport. It takes every other sport combined to equal football’s popularity, according to the latest Harris poll. Within football, the NFL is arguably the single most powerful entity in American culture. Ratings for the NFL and its biggest spectacle, the Super Bowl, triple the ratings of Hollywood and its Oscars. Sunday Night Football was the second highest-rated show on TV last year; Monday Night Football was the second highest-rated show on cable TV.
The stats back it up further. The NFL’s annual revenue is $9 billion, nearly double that of the NBA and over 20 times that of Major League Soccer. As popular as it is, the NFL’s TV revenue is five times that of the NBA. The average number of viewers for a televised MLS game is the same as the population of Lexington, Ky.: around 300,000. To match the average number of viewers for one regular season game of the NFL, you would need the entire state of Kentucky plus Illinois, roughly 16 million.
Due to soccer’s isolated popularity, Rogers taking the field for the Los Angeles Galaxy in May 2013 was historic, but a blip on the radar screen. Collins taking the court for the Brooklyn Nets this season has been inspiring and groundbreaking, and it has gotten the attention it deserves. The public has responded with enthusiasm by making his Nets jersey (No. 98, in honor of Matthew Shepard who was murdered in 1998) a best-seller.
And for more proof, just look at the paychecks. In his rookie NFL deal, this year likely backup Sam can expect a salary about six times that of probable starters Rogers and Griner.
We’ve been told for years that, even as athletes were beginning to come out proudly in other sports, it would be impossible for a publicly gay NFL player to survive in the league. Despite the acceptance of Rogers and Collins, the tenor of the media and many fans continues to question whether Sam, or any gay man, can survive in an NFL locker room.
Let’s face it: Football is the epitome of masculinity in our culture. Boxing, soccer, and basketball don’t measure up in the eyes of Americans, despite their best efforts. Although it’s still a struggle, being a gay man in those sports appears easy compared to our macho football. Sam dropping into the heart of the toughest sport in America will change minds and open eyes like no one has before.
As with virtually every athlete, Collins’s power will slowly wane as he nears the end of his career. Both Rogers and Griner will continue to inspire young LGBT athletes, an important role for anyone. But it’s Sam who has the power to truly change culture in ways we may not even fathom yet. If he flames out in the NFL, he will have moved the needle and nothing more. If he becomes a starter, however, and records some sacks; if he can eventually make it to a Pro Bowl or crash the playoffs—hell, if he can just survive in the league for a few years — he will have broken the scale.
Image Credits: Christian Petersen/Getty Images (Griner, Sam). Joe Klamar/Getty Images (Collins). Jeff Gross/Getty Images (Rogers)