Ray Duckler: Missouri's Michael Sam comes out of the closet, breaks down the door
Michael Sam, big, strong and tougher than we knew, acknowledged this weekend that he’s gay, which had football players and coaches on all levels buzzing.
The 260-pound star defensive lineman, a recent graduate from the University of Missouri, is a sure NFL draft pick in May. He spent this past season crashing through offensive lines to tackle quarterbacks and running backs.
Now, he’s crashing through a different barrier, looking to tackle something, sexual discrimination in the sports world, that is more difficult to stop than a 220-pound back.
If he signs an NFL contract and plays next season, he’ll become the first openly gay player in NFL history.
In fact, he’d be the first publicly gay athlete ever on a roster in any of the four major American team sports, which include MLB, the NBA and the NHL.
The dichotomy here, the one about a gay athlete in the macho world of pro football, hits you like a blitzing linebacker. But Sam wanted to come clean, before someone went to the press, before he
would be forced to answer questions when he was not ready to do so.
“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” Sam told the New York Times on Sunday. “I just want to own my truth.”
Some, we know, can’t handle the truth.
Greg Roberts, Bishop Brady High School’s football coach, applauded Sam’s courage, while adding that society still has a long way to go.
“In this particular time period, it’s becoming less of a concern in terms of who you are, your sexual orientation,” Roberts said. “I think we finally have people who are comfortable with this, with who they are, that they have the talent and skill and mentality to play this game.
“Generally speaking, though, it’s still not something that is comfortable,” Roberts continued. “That’s really the issue that will be hard to deal with, reaching a comfort level on both sides of that issue.”
Roberts, more than any other area football coach, is the perfect source for our purposes. He’s seen a lot.
He played defensive back and punted 35 years ago at the University of Oklahoma, a perennial power, under famed head coach Barry Switzer.
And his father, J.D. Roberts, also played at Oklahoma, and in 1953 was named the winner of the Outland Trophy, given to the top interior lineman in the country. The elder Roberts later coached the NFL’s New Orleans Saints for 2½ years in the 1970s.
The Roberts boys saw all sorts of changes in attitudes during their time playing football, as eyes opened to allow some light to shine through.
But like today, these were merely slivers of light.
“If you look at all the things we’ve done in terms of disabilities, sexual orientation, color, religion, we have a much broader, open community,” Greg Roberts said. “But this issue is about the same thing we went through with color, and if you listen to my dad talk about that time frame as a player and a coach, the abuse that went on. . . .”
Roberts’s voice trailed off, but his meaning was clear.
The father saw discrimination against black players, and the son saw it, too. But racism had to be discussed, because races mixed in the locker room.
Gay rights were far off the social radar back then, and the subject remains taboo in many walks of life today.
In fact, using the word “gay” as a derogatory adjective is relatively common at middle and high schools.
“It’s something I know has happened,” Roberts said. “To say I haven’t heard, I don’t think that’s telling the truth. We have to show respect in different areas where it’s lacking.”
“I’m not naive,” Sam told the Times. “I know this is a huge deal and I know how important this is. But my role as of right now is to train for the combine and play in the NFL.”
He’s seemingly the perfect role model, the ideal trailblazer for a task like this.
Roberts called Sam an “outstanding player.” He was named Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year in the Southeastern Conference, considered the top league in college football.
Plus, unlike so many other players, who leave college early for the NFL, Sam graduated last December, the first and only member of his family to do so.
Further, Sam overcame obstacles. The Times reported that two of his siblings have died, two brothers are in prison and he was raised, for the most part, by his mother.
Maybe that’s why his teammates at Missouri apparently embraced Sam, who, by the way, told them his secret last August, before the season.
Maybe that’s why he was allowed to make this announcement, on his own terms, before a player leaked it to the press.
“I think you’re going to have to do something from a program standpoint,” Roberts said. “Something like saying, ‘Look, this isn’t going to be a problem.’ ”
In this case, it wasn’t.
After the season, Sam’s teammates named him Missouri’s most valuable player.
Call it a great example of higher education.