Like most football fans outside of the Southeastern Conference, before last night, I did not know who Michael Sam was. Until I came out in May 2011 during my "Maxed Out" radio show at my former job at ESPN, few outside of a New York radio audience knew my name.
Like Michael Sam, I grew up knowing that I loved sports, wanted to make a career in sports and also happened to be attracted to people of the same sex. Like Michael Sam, I could not allow fears, however crippling, to deter me from pursuing my career. I was determined to follow my mission, my vision, my dream regardless of potential obstacles created by others--much like, I assume how Michael Sam was driven. Like Sam, I did not come out to make waves in the sports world. He knew, as I did, that coming out could ripple some waters. But, what is a man to do? This is what it means to be gay and in sports.
We are getting closer to a time when it will not be a national news story that an athlete or star player is gay. For now, it is still a freak show to some. And it is this "some" that's keeping us from advancing as a whole.
While being interviewed today on FOX-5's morning news show, "Good Day New York," I was asked about Michel Sam's potential reception from future NFL teammates. I have been asked questions like this many times -- whether it was about Jason Collins, Robbie Rogers, or myself. The answer remains the same. This is not an issue, by and large for Sam's fellow players, colleagues, or teammates who are of a younger generation.
This is an issue for potential employers. People from the old school. People with old money. People with old thoughts. People who believe that men looking at other men in "that" way are dirty, perverse, inferior. Yes, these people really exist, and some have boatloads of money and power. Thankfully, others live here too. Others from the new school. Others with new money. Others with progressive thoughts. People who believe that men looking at other men in "that" way is harmless and of no circumstance to anybody but the two men looking at each other.
Homophobia. This is what this story is about. Somewhere out there, some old dude richer than Richie Rich is in an uproar. Likely, he does not realize that his anger is driven by inner conflict. He will tell people why a gay player is not right for a football locker room, how he will become an unneeded distraction, etc. He will think in terms of himself being the brand of the team, concerned that fans -- the people who consume his product -- might not buy season tickets or team merchandise if it is known that one of the defensive ends is one of "those people" -- someone who has Grindr on his iPhone, right next to the ESPN app.
To these old dudes who are richer than rich but dumb as a stump and afraid to draft a player who is gay, you must ask: "Do fans really care if a player is straight or gay?"
Michael Sam's teammates at Missouri knew he was gay last season. Most knew before he came out during team building exercises in training camp. Did they call him a sissy, a Mary, a fag, or whatever? It does not matter. What speaks to me is that they respected him and kept his secret. This tells me that there are likely several teams in sports where such personal information about teammates is protected, regardless if it is about their sexuality. Why? There is no connection between physical attraction and sport. On the field, we play as a team to win. In the locker room, we talk strategy as a team. In the showers, it is still a team. We are not in sixth or seventh grade anymore.
Michel Sam is a mountain of inner strength who was given the gift to communicate. His voice, despite being an all-American college football player unknown to most, is resonating around the world today. His courage and bravery stand out, screaming to a potential NFL employer, "You want a fearless leader, a mentally solid player with heart? I'm right here."
Jared Max is a sportsbroadcaster and the former host of "Maxed Out" on ESPN New York. More at JaredMax.com