The Michael Sam Story: Confronting Homophobia in Sport & Society

The American sporting world was dominated last week by the news that a talented young American football star, Michael Sam, had announced publicly that he was gay.

The University of Missouri defensive talent had declared himself eligible for the professional NFL Draft, the wonderfully communistic process in which young talent is selected in turn by teams in order determined by their performance in the previous season, with the worst going first, second worst thereafter until the Super Bowl winner eventually gets a pick. This process is repeated with a 2nd Round of picks, then 3rd etc.

Homophobia had already been a topical issue in the professional American football world due to two other prominent developments within the past 12 months.

The decision by Minnesota Vikings punter, Chris Kluwe, in September 2012 to publicly rebuke a Baltimore politician, Emmett C Burns Jr, who had written to the owner of the Baltimore Ravens team condemning a player who had expressed an opinion supportive of gay marriage, brought him into the public eye in a way that may have negatively impacted on his subsequent career in the game.

Kluwe was seen as the public face of the campaign for same sex marriages in the state of Minnesota, a decision that may have ultimately cost him his job. Last month, Kluwe went public over how he was treated by some coaches following his decision to publicly support the campaign (he was released as a player from the Vikings in May 2013.) Following his public allegations, the Minnesota Vikings hired a former Minnesota Supreme Court chief justice (Eric Magnuson) and a former Department of Justice trial attorney (Chris Madel) to lead an investigation into the matter.

Meanwhile, just yesterday, a much anticipated NFL-commissioned report into the troubled Miami Dolphins team concluded that the locker room was defined by a culture of intolerance which proved too much for one player, Jonathan Martin, whose decision to go public on his ordeal at the hands of fellow players- including the now suspended Richie Incognito-  has brought the issue of sporting workplaces even more firmly into the spotlight in light of Michael Sam’s pronouncement. Martin’s issue wasn’t exclusively about homophobia, but it was clearly an element of the abuse dished out to the young player and endemic within the locker room culture.

The reaction of many to the Michael Sam revelation has been heartwarming. Missouri is a fairly conservative state, and his Tigers side compete in the most competitive of college football leagues, the Deep South based South Eastern Conference (SEC.) Right wing chat show host, Michael Brown, struck a critical tone not typical of the public reaction which has seen amongst many others First Lady, Michelle Obama, praise the young prospect for his brave stance.

Immediate reaction also included anonymous but well placed sources from within the professional NFL world declaring that Sam’s announcement would ‘hurt’ his draft status.

Sam is regarded as the premium defensive talent in the best conference within the country (SEC teams won the college championship each of the past 7 seasons, and the team that beat Sam’s to get to this year’s BCS Final only lost to break that streak to a last minute touchdown.)

Yet speculation now has it that Sam will likely not be taken until the 3rd to 5th Round of the Draft, meaning every team will pass on the opportunity to select him 2, 3 or 4 times before one selects him, which will naturally affect his contract as early picks are regarded as prize assets and have most leverage when it comes to contract negotiations.

This speculation greatly angered veteran Dallas sports anchor, Dale Hansen, whose angry riposte has gone viral in recent days, lambasting those who would criticize Sam whilst highlighting the numerous NFL players who have been drafted and continued to play in the league in spite of their very public involvement in illegal activities ranging from manslaughter to domestic abuse and beyond.

Of course, this is not a problem exclusive to American football.

Just last week, English women’s soccer international, Casey Stone, publicly announced that she was gay, precipitating a discussion on attitudes in the soccer world, with results sounding very familiar. Former PFA Chairman, Clarke Carlisle, believes that an education programme targeted at players is required, whilst Bolton manager Owen Coyle is quoted in the article as commenting that attitudes in the game regarding homosexuality have changed little in 20 years.

And, of course, the attitude exhibited by many Russian leaders ahead of the Sochi Games has provoked much comment.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the tide of history is moving inexorably towards one where, on a global scale, increased tolerance defines the attitudes on display towards those who differ on grounds of sexuality.

I hardly need to stress how many within our own little world appear to be increasingly on the wrong side of history….