Do you feel any differently about Michael Sam now?
Here are some things we know about Michael Sam, things that don't change one bit with his announcement Sunday that he's gay: He is one of the best defensive players in the SEC and had -- with apologies to Jadeveon Clowney -- the best season of any defensive lineman in the conference in 2013. And for that, he will almost certainly be drafted in April and join the NFL.
But here are some other things we know about Michael Sam now that he has come out: The first recent college football player and NFL prospect to announce that he's gay comes from the SEC. The league representing the region of the country that is considered least tolerant of homosexuality now finds itself at the center of the biggest story at the intersection of culture, religion and sports. And Sam announcing his sexuality before the NFL Combine, much less the Draft, places him in "an uncharted area of the sports landscape," as The New York Times puts it.
In some ways, you wonder if this could have happened at another SEC school. Even after its SEC East title last season, which wiped away any doubts about whether the Tigers belonged in the conference athletically, Missouri remains a bit of an oddball from a cultural standpoint. While there is some Southern flavor to parts of the state and it was a border state in the Civil War, it's not really a Southern state per se. It sits somewhere on the borders of the South, the Midwest and the Great Plains.
We know now that Sam came out to his teammates before the season. That didn't seem to matter much to them; as the Times notes, they voted him MVP of the Tigers' breakthrough season. Of course, as Sam told the paper, the levels of acceptance among players in the locker room varied, as you would expect in modern American society.
In some ways, this is a watershed moment. Whatever you think of gay rights and the moral and political questions that are interconnected with it, Michael Sam will not be the last SEC athlete to come out. And, in all likelihood, the first active SEC athlete to come out is probably not far behind. If there is one thing that the last few years have taught us, it is that the pace of change in the way Americans regard homosexuality can be incredibly rapid.
But Sam and the players that follow him still face this certainty: While they will be toasted by gay rights supporters and regarded no differently by millions of Americans, they will also not be universally accepted, and some of the rhetoric of those who don't accept them will likely turn ugly. Support it or not, what Michael Sam did today cannot have been easy.
And yet, it was inevitable. There are likely gay players on your favorite sports teams -- even your favorite college football team -- right now. In the relentless meritocracy of sports, they are increasingly likely to see their fortunes rise or fall based on how well they play the game. Think about it this way: Knowing now what we know about Michael Sam, wouldn't you still be glad if he was drafted by your favorite NFL team?
So do you really feel any differently about Michael Sam now?
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