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Thursday, Oct 02, 2014
Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: Acceptance of Michael Sam should not be questioned

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Published:   |   Updated: February 11, 2014 at 06:41 AM

TAMPA — Maybe the next time this happens, it won’t be a story.

Maybe it will happen so often we won’t need to admire someone’s courage, because it won’t require any.

Wouldn’t it be great if we’re moving that way, no stopping it?

Michael Sam, an All-America linebacker for Missouri and SEC defensive player of the year as a senior in 2013, has come out as “an openly proud gay man,” in advance of the NFL scouting combine, draft and a possible pro career.

“I just want to own my truth,” Sam told The New York Times.

Another first: He aims to be the first publicly gay NFL player.

When NBA veteran Jason Collins revealed his orientation last year, some wondered if Collins was merely trying to stay relevant. I didn’t see it that way. I admired Collins.

Now we have an athlete just beginning his professional journey — putting it on the line before it even begins. I admire Michael Sam. I don’t think he’s trying to be the show here, though he will be wherever he goes. He said rumors about his life began to leak while he was at the Senior Bowl, and he wanted to tell his own story, own it. I don’t blame him.

Sam has received amazing public support. I just don’t know how many of those people will be in NFL draft rooms later this year.

Already we’re wondering if the NFL macho culture will accept him. It’s a real question. It shouldn’t be, not this century, but it is.

Ah, yes, chemistry. They’ll mention that, some of the rock heads on NFL teams or in front offices. Distraction, that’s another word.

Maybe we’ve moved on as a society, only sports locker rooms aren’t society.

This is a major test.

There are some cave people in locker rooms, just as there are in society. But I want to think today’s younger athletes have grown up in a different world, a more tolerant one.

Also, they want to win. If Michael Sam helps them do that, he’ll be a good teammate. My guess is he’ll be a good teammate even if they lose.

There have been gays in the NFL for decades, just not front and center. There was fear. But there was tolerance, too. In David Maraniss’ remarkable biography of Vince Lombardi, “When Pride Still Mattered,” Maraniss wrote that Lombardi, America’s coach, winning is the only thing, rock-ribbed values … quietly pulled for gay players who tried to make his teams. Lombardi had a brother who was gay and wouldn’t allow any discrimination on his teams. A lesson more than 40 years ago: It simply takes leadership.

Sam told his Missouri teammates and coaches he was gay before the 2013 season. Here’s how badly it ruined team chemistry and distracted things: Mizzou, picked for last in the SEC East, won the division title, and the Cotton Bowl, finishing 12-2 and fifth in the national rankings. Sam’s disclosure just tore that team apart, didn’t it?

True, it wasn’t publicly known, and that changes everything. Sam will be followed everywhere if he is drafted, and maybe if he is not. There will be those who say he asked for this attention. Yeah, nothing sells a team on you like being openly gay. The man just wants to live his life, no hiding.

His story unfolds even as the Olympics are celebrated in Russia, home of a new, draconian anti-gay measure. But there’s this news from Sochi: Monday, Russian kingpin Vladimir Putin reportedly hugged Dutch gold-medal winning speed skater Ireen Wust, who is bisexual. Maybe there’s hope for the world.

Athletes just want to do their thing.

That includes Michael Sam.

First he needed to own his truth.

I hope he has a great combine.

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