LOS ANGELES, February 11, 2014 — Missouri Tiger’s defensive star and SEC defensive player of the year Michael Sam came out publicly and proudly as a gay man. Reactions spanned the entire spectrum from celebration to condemnation to concern for and about him. There was also a healthy shrug of indifference. Is America ready for a black player with two first names and no last name? Thanks to Minnesota Vikings legend Jim Marshall, the answer is yes.
While the goal is to get to indifference as quickly as possible, the trendsetter is a big deal. Sam will be under a microscope. He comes across as a levelheaded, even-keeled individual who wants to just be seen as a football player. This is a very wise course of thinking.
While Sam himself appears to have all the tools to succeed in the NFL as a pass rusher, he may face one liability: his own supporters.
The gay rights movement is very passionate in America, and political activists of all stripes often act in ways that create a backlash. Most Americans are not anti-gay. They are anti-activists. They want to be left alone. Before the gay community holds Sam up to be a symbol of all of their hopes and dreams, it is imperative that they learn the lesson of Tim Tebow.
Remember Tim Tebow? A devout Christian, Tebow had legions of supporters who rooted for whatever team he played for. Now he is out of the league after only three years.
Tebow was a great college quarterback who had intangible gifts. He was also seen as not being ready for the pro game. His mechanics needed improvement. His supporters unintentionally became a drawback. Coaches avoided hiring him not because they were anti-Christian, but because they were anti-distraction.
Tony Dungy won a Super Bowl as a devout Christian and a football coach. The late Reggie White was the Minister of Defense. He preached Jesus, but only after sacking the quarterback. He won a Super Bowl. Deacon Jones was not a real Deacon, but he was certainly a sack master who preached beating the daylights out of the quarterback.
Tebow became bigger than the team. This was not his fault, but life is unfair. Owners want to focus on winning football games. Everything else is ancillary.
Michael Sam’s supporters may want to invite him to speak at every LGBT function in America. He may want to do this. He may not. The best thing his supporters can do for him is let him focus on football.
Leave him alone. Let him breathe. Treat his sexual orientation as ordinary and boring, which is the entire point of achieving equality. Do not make him stick out like a sore thumb.
The gay community has every right to be proud of him, but they should not substitute any agenda they may have for his primary agenda. His job is to help a team win a Super Bowl.
The key word is team. Football is the ultimate team game. Tebow became bigger than the teams he played for, and the backlash drummed him out of the league.
Sam is a rookie, and a rookie’s job is to quietly learn from veterans around him.
The best way Sam can advance the cause of gay rights is to be a great football player. All the LGBT dinner invitations in the world will not help the cause if he fails on the field. There is plenty of time for him to be a symbol after kids of all stripes are buying up his jerseys like they would any star player.
Some NFL players are devout Christians who happen to disagree with gay marriage. Sam’s supporters should leave them alone. Tolerance is about accepting that in a world of seven billion people, different people have different views. The worst thing the gay community can do is cause Sam unnecessary headaches under the guise of helping him.
Everybody should just get out of this young man’s way. His biggest worry right now should be the NFL Scouting Combine.
The NFL has plenty of room for people like Michael Sam and Tim Tebow. What they do not have room for is anything that distracts or detracts from the game of football.
Gay or straight, football succeeds because it is the ultimate meritocracy. If Michael Sam one day wins a Super Bowl, the gay community should beam with pride and call him what he will have become: a football champion.