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February 11, 2014

Coming Out as a Gay Athlete, College Draft Edition

It's been a while since I've posted about gay athletes, and, my oh my, how things have changed. Michael Sam, a promising college football player, came out on Sunday night as a gay man. With NFL Draft Day just weeks away, the impact of his coming out on his draft prospects is the big question on my mind.

This post is part of a loosely-themed series that I like to call "Coming Out as a Gay Athlete." Previous posts covered an athlete's coming out, homophobia at the time of last year's Super Bowl, a fake girlfriend, a gay athlete in the '70s, stats, and more.  The big question, in my opinion, has been (and will be for the foreseeable future) how athletes and sports leagues will react to having a publicly gay athlete on their roster.

In a post last year, I posed that question about an athlete who came out and was eligible for free agency that summer. Jason Collins, who came out last April, remains without an NBA team, and I am incredibly disappointed. While Collins may not have been a superstar, he is a seven-foot player, and seven-foot players aren't easy to come by. It surprises me that absolutely NO team saw potential for him on their roster.

Michael Sam, who came out as a gay athlete this weekend, is a college football player of considerable skill. He was voted SEC Defensive Player of the Year while playing with the Missouri Tigers, and he is definitely expected to be drafted to an NFL team, perhaps as high as the second or third round. In the CBS draft report, which serves as sort of a scouting report list for prospective players, the top prospective draft picks are ranked. Prior to this weekend, Michael Sam was at no. 90, and, overnight after coming out, fell to no. 170. The rankings have since "stabilized" at no. 110, but this drop nevertheless concerns me.

Will Michael Sam get the fair chance that he deserves on NFL Draft Day?

In the past, the question of how professional sports leagues would react to having a gay athlete playing actively on their team was very hypothetical. Even in the hypothetical, the reactions were mixed. There has been a lot of support - hypothetically, of course - from players, both active and former alike, and in all of the sports. Now, though, the question comes up with a very real face and a very real set of circumstances that will reveal the impact, if any, such an announcement would have on an otherwise promising and talented player's prospects.

CBS Sports takes a guarded and ultimately pessimistic viewpoint on the impact, while others take a more optimistic and supportive stance. A number of Sports Illustrated opinion pieces reveal a thoughtful analysis of how the NFL will react, with this one, revealing the progress that gay rights in sports have made in the last several years, as one of my favorites. Most telling, though, may be the immediate support Michael Sam received from the public, including current and former players, as shown by Deadspin.

Once again, I'm hopeful that there will be a team with the courage to reward this talented player's merits without letting his personal life influence their decision. He's a good player who deserves to find a team that appreciates his strength and talents, and I wish him all the best in his future NFL career. As the Bleacher Report puts it ever so eloquently in a piece that highlights the success of Sam's contributions to his college team, "Michael Sam Being Gay Will Only Be a Distraction for Those Who Want It to Be."

I look forward to the day when the question of teammate and league reactions to having a gay athlete in their midst is a thing of the past. I look forward to the day when a player's sexual orientation isn't even a blip on anyone's radar.

Watching closely on Draft Day,

P.S. The second book in my freebie Man-to-Man Coverage series covers the main characters' coming out while active players in the NFL. I hope things go just as smoothly with Michael Sam as he begins his professional football career.