Gay athletes came to the forefront of the sports world this past week when basketball player Jason Collins signed a ten day contract with the Brooklyn Nets and played in his first game since he publicly came out. In another sport, University of Missouri linebacker Michael Sam, who also publicly came out, participated in the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. While both were greeted by a warm reception by the media and the fans, both had different endings to their storyline. Collins had a good game despite scoring no points against the Lakers, while Sam had a disastrous NFL Combine which in all likelihood affected his draft stock.
This comes down to the question, how do we tell if a gay athlete is ready to handle the spotlight?
Personally I’m okay with a gay athlete playing a team sport. It’s not exactly a new thing, before the NBA and NFL had their gay athletes, the WNBA was the place for a gay athlete to play. Stars like Brittney Griner, Cheryl Swoopes, and countless others were well publicised gay athletes, and no one cared. But now, we enter the question of how a gay athlete in the Big Four is accepted, and how he handles the additional media scrutiny.
The NBA and the NFL are two completely different leagues. If they were on a political spectrum, the NBA would be more liberal, while the NFL would be conservative. The NBA is more receptive to change, while the NFL is more hesitant. Jason Collins was accepted immediately by the league, new commissioner Adam Silver, and the fans. And here’s the best part. Collins decided once he came out, he’d stop piggybacking on it. It took him months to find a job after coming out, but when asked, he didn’t complain about being discriminated.In addition, he also played it off as normal on his return. His teammates also didn’t make a big show of it either, indicating that while the occasion was memorable, it wasn’t supposed to be treated like the President coming to town. For that I applaud Collins. In my mind, I think being a gay athlete is fine, so long as you don’t use it to get along. If you want to play a sport, play a sport, but don’t use something like your sexual orientation to advance your cause. Also, timing is everything. Had Collins done this at a more inopportune time, it would have put more pressure on teams to sign him, more controversy on him, and all in all, it would have been an ugly mess. Collins choosing now to come out was probably the best thing for him, the NBA, and everybody associated with basketball.
This brings me to Michael Sam.
Before I begin, let me preface this by saying that I mean no malice when I analyze Sam. I am in no way homophobic, in fact I have friends who are gay who would probably agree with what I’m saying. I am just pointing out the difference between him and Collins. I am saying this because I don’t want to hear any vitriolic comments from people on Reddit or Facebook or Twitter or any other sports site saying that I’m a a homophobic nutjob, that I’m an unprintable word, that I should be banned from writing. etc. If you’re going to be offended, that’s fine, but don’t blackball me for presenting an analysis and having an opinion.
When Michael Sam came out, I knew that he had chosen the wrong time to do so. By coming out before the combine and the workouts, before the Draft even, he was going to be subject to a firestorm of media coverage. I knew that maybe Sam would be able to handle the media, after all, Missouri had come off an excellent year, Sam had been named SEC defensive player of the year, and looked like a decent mid round pick, he probably had some media exposure before, not a lot. Still, the choice to come out before being auditioned to the NFL put unnessecary attention and overwhelming pressure on him.
When Sam came to Indianapolis to audition, he was projected as a mid round pick. When he left, after an unimpressive combine, his draft stock had taken a tumble. He maybe was an early to mid day 3 now, at the worst, an undrafted free agent. But yet, the media still was on him.
I’m not trying to imply that Sam tried to improve his visibility in order for him to assure himself a job in the NFL, but again, I would point out that coming out before the combine, before the pro day, it was an incredibly risky move that while it looked like a good idea, is starting to blow up in his face.
Remember the big media story last year involving Manti Te’o? About the dead girlfriend hoax? This was at about the same media scrutiny level. What happened after the story came out? Te’o went to the combine, proceeded to fail to impress, and what was once viewed as a first round lock fell to the second round. A guy who was viewed as a potential defensive rookie of the year lock was practically invisible in his first year in San Diego. He was distracted. The fake dead girlfriend story dogged him the entire year, and Te’o had every opportunity to not let it be a distraction, but ultimately, he failed in that regard and made himself out to be a fool.
The NFL is not a fan of distraction. Te’o was a distraction last year, and despite what the NFL wants you to think, Sam is this year. Players that do come with off the field baggage that distracts from football are not in the NFL for long, look at Tim Tebow and Aaron Hernandez if you need reference. If Sam wants a career in the NFL, if he wants to be more than a media target, he’s going to have to deflect the questions on homosexuality. In all likelihood, any interview that Sam has will include questions that pertain to his homosexuality. What he needs to do is brush them off, or if it’s unavoidable, give a generic answer. It will save him the scrutiny, and it will send a message to the media that he doesn’t want this to be as much of a distraction as it has become.
Now, earlier, I posed the point that Sam had picked the worst time to come out, but I never said when I felt Sam would have best chosen his moment. For those who do want to know when the best time would have been, I would have said that he should have waited until his first season in the league. Sam could have spent the season notifying his coaching staff that he was gay, followed by his teammates, then when the season ended, he could have come out publicly. While still a distraction, the resulting media coverage wouldn’t have been so disruptive as it is now. Sam would have been applauded either way, he still would answer questions, but it would have been better for him and for everyone else involved right now if he had waited a little longer.
Instead, there’s almost an added pressure on teams to pick him. While the team that picks him will be given the unfortunate task of dealing with the issue, the other teams will be blasted for not taking a chance on him. And in truth, that’s unfair. Teams may have reasonable excuses to not draft him, “He’s not a scheme fit”, “We felt that there were better prospects at that position”, “We don’t want the media attention”, etc. To provide an example: If a team like the Jets drafted him, it would be a media circus all over again. Jets GM John Idzik wanted the team to get away from the circus label, not to mention the team is already strong enough in regards to its linebacker corps, so despite an endorsement for Sam from coach Rex Ryan, taking him would serve only as a distraction. If Sam is to be drafted, it’s because he’s a football player, not a gay football player.
In conclusion, the way that Jason Collins and Michael Sam have dealt with coming out has been handled differently. While the media has certainly heaped its praise on the situation and the leagues have welcomed them, it is truly up to them to handle their coming out the appropriate way.