When everyone made a tremendous to-do about NBA player Jason Collins coming out of the closet last year, my reaction was more along the lines of “whoop-de-doo.” And not for the reasons you are probably assuming.
From my perspective, Collins was not all that different from John Amaechi, another basketball player who came out after his career was over. While Collins was still technically active, which is what made his announcement newsworthy, most people who follow the NBA were aware his career was probably done. Not because he was gay, but because he was an aging third-string center. So while it was a great individual moment — anyone who comes out of the shadows and embraces the reality of who they are should be commended — it was not as watershed of a moment as everyone wanted it to be.
Not yet, that is.
Though Collins has yet to walk back into a locker room as an openly gay man, the one thing his announcement did was open a door for someone else to feel comfortable in doing so.
On Sunday, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, became that man. And because an athlete is now able to come out before he embarks on his professional career, Collins’ decision to come out at the end of his career has finally received the contextual bookend that allows us to properly proclaim it as historically significant.
We may not know how teams perceive Sam until Draft Day. I’ve seen him projected anywhere from Round 3-6, with his performance at Missouri’s Pro Day and the NFL Combine still needed to give teams a better idea of where he should be picked. I do find it unlikely teams will stay away from Sam because of his announcement — but if they do, they’re idiots.
If anything, I feel Sam did his draft stock a service. He knew there would be rumors floating around that he was gay as NFL teams starting digging around for skeletons in his closet. And instead of letting this become one, he was forthright and honest. Ultimately it is how you can perform on the field that matters, but the way he has handled the situation shows every team everything they need to know about Michael Sam’s character.
As was the case with Collins, it is too early to make judgement calls on the historical significance of Sam coming out of the closet. Society may yet prove itself less advanced than I think. But I have a feeling that 15 years from now the sexuality of players in every professional sport will be such a non-issue that we will look back and see that Michael Sam — and Jason Collins before him — were pretty damn important.