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The NFL, Tolerance, and Michael Sam
By Matt Horkman

News of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam’s sexuality spread like wildfire on Blackwater Bay.

In last month’s interview with ESPN Outside the Lines, Sam revealed to the public that he was a gay man. While Sam is hardly the first gay man to pursue playing in the NFL, he is the first openly gay man to do so. His revelation came in the wake of the Miami Dolphins locker room crisis. Given the timing, many fans are wondering whether an NFL locker room is ready for its first openly gay player.

It’s a complicated situation. Certain aspects of an NFL locker room may offend the public. A locker room full of 50-plus males who play a vicious sport is not the same as a desk job. Using a gay or racial slur on the field or inside the locker room happens frequently. It’s a different environment. Miami offensive lineman Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin (now with San Francisco) brought some of this to light. 

Nevertheless, before skepticism wins out, it’s worth nothing that it wasn’t long ago when the public met same-sex marriage (and gay rights in general) with skepticism.

A recent poll done by ABC News and The Washington Post says that 59 percent of all respondents favor same-sex marriage. Only 34 percent oppose. The shift in public opinion is precisely why I don’t expect Sam’s draft stock to take a nosedive. NFL owners are businessman. They want to make money and they’ll likely see dollar signs in Sam. He won’t appeal to everybody, as it’s a big country with a wide-range of opinions, but he’ll appeal to certain demographics. All it’s going to take is for one team to market him the right way. It’s a sour way of a looking at things, sure, but it’s also reality. For most NFL owners, the NFL is just another business venture.

It wasn’t long ago that marketing a gay player wasn't even plausible, yet we’ve seen a shift in public opinion. That shift has come in large part because of Generation Y or the so-called Millennial Generation. Born between 1980 and 2000, Millennials are more likely to support same-sex marriage and other gay rights issues than their older counterparts are. The average age of an NFL player in 2013 was about 27, making them Millennials. This only reinforces a recent poll done by ESPN that found 86 percent of NFL players don’t have a problem with a gay teammate. In addition, a poll done by the Pew Research Center found 70 percent of Millennials favor same-sex marriage.

Now plenty of data still shows the public has mix feelings on the morality of homosexuality, yet most of us -- especially Millennials -- don’t seem to care about what consenting adults do in the privacy of their own bedroom. Perhaps you can’t definitively correlate support for same-sex marriage with support for a gay teammate. You can also argue the sample size (51 players) of the ESPN poll was too small, but this is the best information we have to analyze the situation.

In context of Sam fitting into an NFL locker, these numbers are truly fascinating. Most commentators on television, radio, and elsewhere belong to a different time. As do some coaches and general managers. It isn’t fair to lump an entire generation’s viewpoint into one collective hive. Still, for better or worse, the reaction of a 50-year-old who used to play the game and a 25-year-old who is playing the game isn’t always going to be the same. Simply put, the data available to us displays a tolerant society pertaining to Sam’s sexuality. This is especially true for the generation that dominates the current landscape of the NFL. 

For Sam, just having the public on his side is half the battle. His biggest obstacle will be winning over his teammates with his play on the field.

Many teams -- particularly ones running a 3-4 on defense -- are interested in moving him from defensive end to outside linebacker. During Senior Bowl week, he had difficulties with this transition. The same problems persisted at the combine, where he simply looked uncomfortable playing in space.Michael Sam

His combine workout only reinforced his lack of athleticism. He ran a woeful 4.91 in the 40 and struggled in the broad and vertical jumps. Sam will need to overcome his misgivings as an athlete to make it in the NFL. His teammates won’t respect him as a player until he contributes to winning on Sundays. 

If Sam proves to have the skills to contribute to an NFL team, then his teammates will accept him. All the available data we have backs this up. The key will be whether the majority is silent. There’s no question in my mind that a loud minority will oppose Sam both on and off the field.

Will Sam’s teammates come to his defense?

Every team has an intimidator that gets involved in any on-field scuffle. Their job is to defend their teammate. That’s the test to watch. When Sam finds himself in an on-field scuffle, forget about the announcers who’ll likely try and turn it into a story.

Watch and see if teammates come to his aid.

If they do, then Sam has won the other half of the battle.

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