LOS ANGELES, February 10, 2014 — Missouri Tigers defensive standout Michael Sam publicly announced to the National Football League and the rest of the world that he is gay. While some retired players have come out, no player has done so while playing. Sam is expected to be drafted somewhere in the middle rounds.
Gays now serve in the military, and a gay player in an NFL locker room would open up the floodgates in other sports.
Once an NFL player steps out of the closet, his life is forever changed. Since 10% of the population is gay, there is every reason to think that there are a decent number of gay NFL players right now already.
Now that Sam has come out, there is one piece of advice that he should take seriously: Strive to be a phenomenal professional football player.
Good is not good enough. Great is not good enough. The first openly gay player must obsess over winning a Super Bowl ring.
Owners want to win. Whether Michael Sam is Sean Penn’s “I am Sam” or the Son of Sam matter less than what he does on Sundays. Sam needs to show up on Sundays.
Sam’s failure to do so could prolong others from breaking the barrier indefinitely. This is true with any trendsetters in sports or the military.
Jackie Robinson was more than just the first black man in Major League Baseball. He was a spectacular baseball player. His success opened the doors for other owners who valued winning over racism.
The NFL was not so lucky. In 1974, Joe Gilliam, a black American, was the starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The team already had Terry Bradshaw, the hero of the “Immaculate Reception” from two seasons earlier. However, Gilliam played subpar and then descended into drug abuse. Bradshaw regained the starting job and led a dynasty to four Super Bowls.
The NFL finally had a black quarterback success story in 1987 when Doug Williams led the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl win. Gillam’s stumble, however, delayed the breaking of the color barrier.
In military life, Shannon Faulkner became the first woman to try and graduate from the Citadel as a cadet. She showed up out of shape, by Citadel standards, not ordinary standards, and dropped out. Women would eventually graduate from the Citadel and VMI, but Faulkner was not up to the task.
The NFL rewards winners and ruthlessly punishes losers. It is the epitome of a meritocracy. Retired coach Bill Parcells told his star running back that when a player comes out of the huddle because of an injury, he never knows who will be taking his place in that huddle.
Vince Lombardi was the epitome of a winner. He said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” When one of his black players told Lombardi of his desire to marry a white woman, Lombardi supported the couple and stated that his only priority was winning on Sundays.
That was in 1958, before America had even legally integrated. Lombardi also had a gay brother. Any player who objects to Michael Sam based on his sexual orientation is dishonoring Lombardi and the game of football. The Lombardi Trophy rewards football excellence, nothing more or less.
The late Senator Barry Goldwater once said about gays in the military that, “a man does not have to be straight. He just has to shoot straight.”
Michael Sam just has to run straight at the quarterback and belt him to the ground. That is what pass rushers do.
JaMarcus Russell is one of the biggest busts in NFL draft history. Had he failed thirty years ago, people may have blamed his race. Yet in the modern era, black quarterbacks are flourishing. Russell had his equal shot, and he made the least of it.
Tim Tebow is seen by some as a curiosity due to his overt Christian religiosity. Yet Tebow had the road paved for him a couple decades earlier due to the late “Minister of Defense,” Reggie White. White could preach soft-spoken words of the Lord’s blessings to quarterbacks after he belted them to the ground. A woman recently tried out at the NFL Combine for the first time. She came in as a kicker, and her kicks were terrible.
Announcing one’s homosexuality in a professional sports environment means extreme pressure. So is trying to complete or stop the winning touchdown pass in the Super Bowl with everything on the line. A football player who cracks under pressure is not the right person to lead a serious movement.
Sam should not be blamed for a loss just because he’s gay any more than he should be credited with a win just because he is gay. His athleticism or football I.Q. should be blamed for missing a sack that leads to touchdowns against his defense, not his sexuality.
For Michael Sam, success requires obeying the maxim of Super Bowl winning coach Bill Bellichick. “Do your job.”
Then do it very well. Then do it even better than that.