Will the NFL tear down its longstanding gay barrier?

February 11, 2014 

It made sense that someone like Jason Collins would be the first out gay man in one of the four major North American pro sports leagues. Collins, a 12-year NBA veteran and a Stanford graduate, had already proved his worth in the pros. There was no question that he could play, and that he wasn’t “a disruptive locker room presence,” whatever that euphemism is supposed to mean.

But Collins hasn’t been able to cut a deal with an NBA team since he came out last April. Maybe that’s because he’s gay, and every franchise is too cowardly to sign him up. Or maybe it’s because he’s an old, defensive-minded center in a league that no longer prizes big men.

Michael Sam, who came out in interviews with The New York Times and ESPN on Sunday, is not a borderline case. The 6-foot-3, 260-pound defensive end from the University of Missouri was the defensive player of the year in the SEC, the best conference in college football. He is on the cusp of the prime of his career, not the end of it.

By declaring that he’s gay before May’s draft, Sam is making a brave statement, one that’s also a challenge to the entire NFL. He will not make an announcement about his sexuality after he’s already signed a contract, nor after he retires. Sam wants every pro football decision maker to know he’s gay before he’s even in the league. Sam, then, won’t be breaking down sports’ biggest barrier himself. He’s placed a sledgehammer at the feet of every NFL general manager. Now who will be brave enough to swing it?

There are 32 NFL teams, and some of them have probably started backing away. The Times’ John Branch reports that, prior to Sam’s coming out, various scouts asked his agents whether the player had a girlfriend, even though the NFL declared last year that this sort of discriminatory question is out of bounds.

Unlike all those pro athletes who were confined to the closet until after their careers were over, Sam will join the NFL on his own terms. There will be no whispers, no innuendo, just an enormous, extremely fast athlete who wants to make a living playing the game he loves. That sounds like a guy who’d fit in perfectly in the NFL.

Levin is Slate’s executive editor. Readers can email him at sportsnut@slate.com.

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