I love football, and have since I was a kid. I grew up as a Bears fan, cheered on my high school football team in rural Michigan (think “Friday Night Lights,” just set further north) and even played powder puff (girls’) football when the opportunity arose. Practiced hard enough my shoulders bruised so deeply that I couldn’t raise my arms high enough to comb my own hair. I love football.
Lately, though, there has been more and more negative press about what happens behind the scenes in the NFL. Stories of bigotry, homophobia and discrimination, and talk of a culture of bullying. Then, in the midst of the tumult, one brave man took a stand. On Sunday, Michael Sam, a defensive lineman from the University of Missouri, announced that he’s gay. As an All-American player and future draft pick, this is a big deal. I wish it weren’t, but is is.
There has already been negative response to his announcement, and some have called it an unnecessary distraction. I strongly disagree. It’s 2014, and Michael Sam – if drafted – would be the first openly gay player in the National Football League. That tells you everything you need to know about how important this is. We all know there are already gay players in the NFL, hiding in the shadows. Michael Sam is stepping forward and forging an important path. They say football is all about physical and mental toughness. Michael Sam has proven exactly how tough he is before he ever steps foot on the field as a professional football player. He was brave enough to risk ridicule and discrimination – brave enough to be himself. Moreover, it’s possible that some teams may choose not to draft him now. Their loss.
The football players who are my heroes have always been not just great players, but great people: Walter Payton, Mike Singletary, Brian Urlacher and Peyton Manning are all good examples. It seems to me that in speaking up, Michael Sam has already proven himself to be more than just a talented athlete; he’s proven that he has tremendous strength of character. As a woman who loves football, this makes me very happy. As a parent whose children might someday love this sport as much as I do, this makes me ecstatic. Michael Sam is already a hero in my book. I don’t know if he’ll ever have a Super Bowl ring, or make the Play of the Game. Regardless, he is a hero. Somewhere out there sits a boy who might have believed his dream of playing pro football was out of reach, until now. Michael Sam – by being brave enough to be himself – brought that dream a little closer.