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….


  • The reality is that some professional occupations have a hyper-masculine subculture for various reasons. These include professional sports (the male teams at least) and the military. In the military this has manifested itself both in hostility towards women and towards homosexuals. There may be several explanations for this: the conservative religious backgrounds of those who go into the military, professional insecurity about increased competition, and in some cases the lowering of physical and performance standards in the name of equality, which are perceived as a threat to the safety of those men in the field. This is particularly true is special forces units.

    In these groups, aggression against homosexuals might be a socially acceptable form of displacement of resentment against women. I was in the military when remarks against women were penalized and remarks against homosexuals were not. So as a result, there were a lot more remarks against gays. In American sports many of the athletes are black coming from a class subculture that looks at women as ho’s (whores). They have to interact with female journalists who can now come into the male locker rooms for interviews. So part of the greater resentment against homosexuals might be displaced aggression against women entering into a formerly male world.

  • The thing is that people are not born homophobes (or bigots), it’s a learned behaviour. But, as you say Chris, it (homophobia) does appear to be on the decrease so the like of these athletes “coming out” may push acceptance of differences more common. Not so sure yet about the bigotry.

  • Charles_Gould

    There was a very likeable retired footballer Robbie Rogers who came out last month. Can’t be very long until a active footballer comes out.

  • Charles_Gould

    SDLP was probably the first party to have an out homosexual in its public figures.

  • CW

    I believe you’re referring to the late PA Maglochlainn, Charles. A great man and a real character. He was my French teacher at Omagh CBS back in the ’80s.

  • Charles_Gould

    CW well said. What was he like as a teacher?

  • Kevsterino

    @Chris, While I would agree that Missouri is a relatively conservative state, it is probably among the least conservative of the SEC states. More important to me than the attitudes of the fans, though, is I haven’t heard of any of his teammates at Mizzou say anything bad about him.

    Besides that, I think he would be a steal in anything later than the 3rd round. He really is a very exceptional defensive talent.

  • Kevsterino

    btw, I’m very proud of how Mizzou has responded to this. Westboro Baptist Church, of course, has a view of Sam. And Mizzou, 2000 strong, came out to block their path:

  • CW

    Although he wasn’t the greatest teachger, he certainly was a colourful character to say the least, a genuine eccentric. Dressed in an old man’s cardigan, (even though he was only in his early 40s) and flared trousers which had gone out of style a decade ago and with his trademark beard and glasses he cut a unique presence both within the school and the wider local community. We knew him ostensibly as a French teacher, but he seemed to have taught nearly every other subject at some point. Being something of a renaissance man he ran the school chess club, was involved in local politics, worked as a part time life guard at the local swimming baths and was an occasional actor with the town’s drama society as well as being a bit of a computer boffin.

    He was a regular visitor to Eastern Europe in the days of the Iron Curtain and one of his claims to fame was that he was one of only two people in the town who could speak Polish (I don’t know who the other one was). He had an endless repertoire of stories, jokes, anecdotes and amazing facts about almost everything under the sun which he would impart to us during class and relate in a variety of theatrical voices and accents – often with only a very tenuous link to what he was supposed be teaching us. Some of us would try and take advantage of this by asking him a question at the beginning of class with a vague connection to France, such as the Channel Tunnel on which construction had just begun, in the hope that he would spend the whole lesson talking about it. He rarely fell for this and would simply say “ask me after class”. But not surprisingly no-one did. His breadth of knowledge and generosity in sharing it taught the pupil as much about life and the world as the subject being taught.
    I gave him a special mention in my memoir “In Complete Circles”.

  • Chris Donnelly

    I’d be delighted for my Cardinals to take him, though I retain a somewhat forlorn hope that we can pick up one of the few quality QBs in the 1st Round as well.

    Thanks for that on PA. Fascinating character!

  • babyface finlayson

    So from what I know there are no elected representatives who are openly gay representing any of the 4 main parties at Stormont.
    Are there any councillors? In the big 4,not that I know of.
    I believe Alliance has one.
    There are no openly gay players in what passes for football here and no gay GAA players at least in the North (I believe there is one in Cork)
    That is a sad state of affairs.

  • Kevsterino

    @Chris, I’d hate to see Sam go to Arizona! The defenses of the NFC West are already so strong (including my Rams).

    But, I’m done with football for the time being. Pitchers and catchers have reported down to Florida and Arizona. Time for some baseball, except for those denizens of the North Side of Chicago. They may have to wait another year or two ;o) The Cardinals are going all the way this year!!

    Let’s Go Cardinals!!! *clap* *clap*, *clap* *clap* *clap*

  • Chris Donnelly

    Ha! If I thought the Cubs had only a two year wait to return to even just respectability, then I’d be happy.

  • gaygael

    More than one out councillor. No out mps, meps, or mlas.
    Alliance have two, Muir in north down and another whose name escapes me. Mary Ellen Campbell of sf for castle ward bcc is out also and is chair I think of sf lgbt

  • babyface finlayson

    Thanks for the info. It’s a very poor showing.
    Not unexpected from the Unionist parties given the traditional views of many of their supporters,but disappointing from the rest.

  • Charles_Gould

    It was one of the UUP’s members who brought a legal case back in 1980 that decriminalised homosexual acts in NI, and the PUP have an LGBT candidate.

  • Charles_Gould

    Jeff Dudgeon is the name of the UUP campaigner who legalised homosexual acts; as CW says the SDLP’s (late) PA Maglochlainn took forward the baton by campaigning for gay issues. And Andy Muir, who is now with the Alliance party started off in the SDLP.

    SF MPs by contrast walk in the New York St Patrick’s day event, which prohibits gay expression.

  • Droch_Bhuachaill

    Twitter is aflutter with reaction to Neil Francis’ opinions on homosexuality in sport:

  • Chris Donnelly

    Neil Francis’ bigoted comments are precisely why these discussions must be had. Flushing the bigots into the open is a key part of the process of building a more tolerant and respectful society.

  • Droch_Bhuachaill

    Having played both rugby and GAA, I don’t think young players give a damn about a person’s sexuality, just as they don’t give a toss about what a religion a player has. It might be a problem amongst older players/participants, but it isn’t an issue amongst under 30s I would imagine.

  • Charles_Gould


    I agree. This is a real generational thing.

  • babyface finlayson

    I think it’s a bit harsh to call Neil Francis a bigot based on what he said here.
    Sean McAvoy of the Ulster Titans did not find them particularly homophobic, rather he said they were naive, outdated and old-fashioned.
    It is quite possibly true that some gay people are not attracted to physical sports,not because they would prefer a bit of ballet, but because they have been deterred from getting involved when young.
    It is also true as Francis said that dressing rooms can be homophobic places.Who would deny that?
    He made some silly generalisations but talk of ‘flushing out the bigots’ in this instance is akin to McCarthyism.

  • ForkHandles

    There is no such thing as homophobia. It is not a phobia, ask a doctor. It is a simple and obvious attempt by people who cannot stand the fact that most people find homosexuality to be abnormal, to demonize those with an opinion they do not like. Any person with half a brain can see that adding ‘apobic’ to a term makes it sound bad to be of that opinion. Don’t like tomatoes? you are tomatophobic!!! obvious nonsense.

    The fact is that every major religion defines homosexuality as abnormal and immoral. Only the 2ish% of the (western) world that are atheist and so have no morals are the ones trying to promote the idea of homosexuality as morally right.

  • Coll Ciotach

    I cannot see what the big issue is one way or another. Who cares in the real world? Someone is sexually deviant – big deal.

  • gaygael

    Nice to see this discussion. Pity the phobes had to stick their oar in.

    Fork handles – please you statement is the epitome of homophobia. I think you just disproved yourself busy the very content of your statement. It is used to mean, irrational fear or aversion to and/or discrimination against same sex attracted people.

    Very major religion also had a ‘place’ for women. And that was one of subservience to men. Some religions even promoted and accept ed slavery.
    Luckily we evolved and I hope some day that you will catch up.
    Additionally I would point you to social attitudes studies in the western world. You are the minority with your homophobia, and an ever shrinking minority. Go to the kremlin, attend pride, you will find that lgbt people are just like you. In fact, you will probably bump into friend families and neighbours. We are everywhere. And I mean everywhere.

    Collciotach. I think you can see the big issue. You just refuse or pretend you can’t. An openly gay man being drafted to NFL is huge. Just like that time we had black athletes allowed, that was momentous. Maybe you and fork handles should attend thata lgbt venue or pride together and jointly have your willful ignorance challenged.

    I bless you both with exclusively lgbt kids and grand kids.

  • Droch_Bhuachaill


    Anyone who thinks a 2000+ year old work of fiction has any control or relevance to the private lives of individual adults is a realityophobe.

  • ForkHandles

    “Nice to see this discussion. Pity the phobes had to stick their oar in.”

    In a discussion you will get people who disagree with you. But it sounds like you only want to hear from people who agree with you 🙂 Actually there really is no phobia called homophobia, you and other people just made up the term to try and demonize anyone who has a view that it is abnormal and immoral and not something that should be portrayed as ok or right in anyway. People are not afraid of homosexuals, they just have a belief and opinion that it is morally wrong and as such are against the acceptance and promotion of that morally wrong lifestyle. If you think that it is a real phobia, go to your doctor and say you are suffering from a bad case of homophobia. You see, its not real ! Aggression, abuse and so on towards people because of their sexuality is a different case entirely. I believe all people are protected under the law from this type of abuse.

    Just look at your first line “Pity the phobes had to stick their oar in.” You are trying to portray someone who disagrees with you as ‘the bad guy’. You cant handle anyone who might find your lifestyle as wrong. You can’t accept people can have an opinion that finds your lifestyle as morally wrong. You proved what I said in your first line. Nice one 🙂

  • babyface finlayson

    “There is no such thing as homophobia.
    Better inform the Oxford Dictionary:
    ‘homophobia; an extreme and irrational aversion to homosexuality and homosexual people.
    “Only the 2ish% of the (western) world that are atheist and so have no morals are the ones trying to promote the idea of homosexuality as morally right.”
    Atheists usually manage to form some kind of moral code in between the baby eating.

  • ForkHandles

    Try getting diagnosed with it then. It is just a term in every day use, that’s why its in the dictionary.

    It is used as a debating strategy to try to invalidate an opponents opinion. Everyone knows this. There are many commonly used strategies like this.

    Why are you so opionaphobic? You bad man!

  • ForkHandles

    sorry I meant ‘opinionaphobic’… should have checked the ol dictionary…

  • Greenflag

    ‘Homosexuality and it’s female equivalent ‘ have always existed in nature and in all species including the primates . So for those Christians/Jews /Moslems etc who see this natural phenomenon as abnormal perhaps they need to take the matter up with their God/Yahweh/Allah who after all created man /woman in his own image . Presumably and by deductive rationale of the Calvinistic kind anyway – then as God knows everything including those who are hell or heaven bound then surely such a God must be a deviant of some sort given that he/she /it creates those with this abnormal defect so that he can later punish them for all eternity on the fire spit ? Sounds to me like this God is in need of psychiatric and spiritual counselling !

    In a few weeks this NFL player will be just one of a team and forgotten about . Homophobes need’nt worry . If his team mates don’t give a s**t why should anybody else .It’s his own business .

    About 2% of the population are gay/lesbian . Why it has never died out as a trait is the subject of interesting biological research .

    Here’s a link to a recent BBC story on the subject for anyone interested ..

    The Westboro Baptist Church who’ll never accept scientific evidence in any event are of course ‘deviants ‘ of a kind just like that poor sod Pentecostal pastor in the Church of the Snake Handlers who died from a snake bite having refused medical treatment . One of his family members rationalised his stupid death with the all encompassing biblical cliche and I quote

    ‘When your time is up your time is up’

    Snake handling will of course continue to be a part of this sects God worshipping rituals’ 🙁

    Apparently the snake handling is supposed to prevent a person dying if they somehow drink anything poisonous .

  • babyface finlayson

    “Why are you so opionaphobic?”
    As a matter of fact I do suffer from Allodoxaphobia, according to my doctor.
    He told me I could get a second opinion at which point I ran out screaming.

  • gaygael

    My lifestyle is morally wrong. But I think your homophobia is morally wrong, just as I do with racism, sectarianism, and sexism.
    I work for a charity, I volunteer at another, I sit on the board of a third. I recycle, i donate money to a fourth charity. I have provided care to family members and am socially conscious. By most peoples standards I am a model citizen.
    But because I happy to love another man, suddenly I am morally reprehensible.
    Opinions like yours are rapidly disappearing in the modern world. You are on the wrong side of history and are a homophobe. We have not yet reached tipping point on this issue, but we are not far away. You like the racists and sexists of old will be curiously observed and laughed at.
    I support your right to hold these opinions, but I reserve the right to call you out as a homophobe when you express homophobic attitudes.

    Bad luck. As I say. I hope all of your children and grand children will be exclusively lgbt.

    As an aside, Kinsey estimated the lgbt population to be closer to 10%. And that was in the 40s and 50s. Not of all us are out and visible, but as people like fork handles get shrilled and their voices gain less and less credence, more and more of us will be visible.

  • ForkHandles

    gg, you’re still doing the thing!…. you’re still using the term to equate people who simply believe homosexuality to be morally wrong, with abusive behavior such as racism, sectarianism etc.

    I don’t believe I am abusing you or doing anything other than point out that people can have a view that homosexuality is immoral and unnatural.

    “I support your right to hold these opinions, but I reserve the right to call you out as a homophobe when you express homophobic attitudes. ”

    Again you’re contradicting yourself. You say you support peoples right to have an opinion, then you try to demonize them.

    Do you accept that people can have a view that homosexuality is immoral? if its yes, then you should respect their view. I think the problem is that people don’t want to think of themselves as a bad person. That’s why gay people can’t handle a view that their behavior is immoral.

  • Zig70

    Anti homophobic and the media are odd bedfellows. Is someone out is generally on the same page in media as pot bellies, upskirts and other fun poking. Forkhandles is right on one level that the gay campaigners are guilty of demonising also, though the christian community have by far the most guilt. I’ve had lots of conversations with evangelical Christians that are pleased to have folk with a dark past in their ranks but can’t tolerate same sex partners. A big part of me thinks why do I need to know the sex habits of any footballer or councillor. They don’t need to know mine. Keeping your sex life private shouldn’t be just the privilege of those who can afford injunctions.

  • Droch_Bhuachaill

    ForkHandles 20 February 2014 at 7:08 am
    “gg, you’re still doing the thing!…. you’re still using the term to equate people who simply believe homosexuality to be morally wrong, with abusive behavior such as racism, sectarianism etc.”

    What term would you like to use for yourself? Anti-Gay? Straight-Only? Anti-Any-Love-But-Straight?

  • Kevsterino

    I think it is a mistake to equate love and sexual attraction. There are many men I have loved and do love and will continue to love, all without being sexually attracted to them in the least. So the ‘anti-love’ thing is obviously wrong.

    To be frank, it doesn’t interest me in the least who athletes or politicians find sexually appealing, and I don’t think they should care what I think about their sexuality. It simply doesn’t matter. Sexuality plays no part in my interest in them. I care about how much an athlete can help my team win. i care about how a politician plans to vote on key issues of the day, regardless of who he or she is taking to bed tonight.

    I can comprehend how important things like homosexual marriage and rights of all kinds are to homosexuals. I don’t think anyone has the right to persecute anybody, but even then, to me, their homosexuality is not the main issue. It is a matter of civil (or human) rights and the needs of society as a whole.

    Why can’t we live with the proposition that what people do in their bedrooms is their own business?

  • Greenflag

    ‘Why can’t we live with the proposition that what people do in their bedrooms is their own business?’

    Indeed as long as it’s sex or sleeping with whoever whatever they want .

    Father Ted: Fascists dress in black and go around telling people what to do, whereas priests.——————- more drink!

  • gaygael

    Fork handles – I am not demonizing anyone.

    If you where to post on this board how you believe that certain rights and responsibilities incurred by those rights, were to be denied to any other minority group, such as a racial group, a religious group, women, you would rightly be challenged as racist, sectarian, or sexist. I know you willfully try to differentiate these issues, but they are on the same continuum. Sexual Orientation is a protected characteristic just like those mentioned above. Society is leaving you behind. Why not catch up with us?
    You will experience exactly the same response when you try to deny rights to LGBT people.
    As i say, i support your right to have a view on minority sexual orientation, just as i support your right to hold views on race, religion or gender. You do not get to falsely elevate your views to that of the majority, nor do you get to go unchallenged. (Look out for attitudinal survey out in Northern Ireland on Monday)

    I can certainly handle the view that decreasing minority of people think that being LGBT is morally wrong. I happen to believe that homophobia is morally wrong. And most people in the western world agree with me, which must be much to your chagrin.
    There are less and less people like you. There used to be people that thought that women were inferior, or that only one religion had the proper interpretation of faith or that one racial group was superior to others. These people are now rightly ridiculed. History will put you in the same bracket as those people.

    Luckily the law of the land is ahead of people like you on this issue, and discrimination or ill treatment on the basis of sexual orientation is illegal. You can have your opinion. But if you are service provider or business owner, or professional and your opinion impacts on me and the service I receive, you will be dealt with appropriately. If you incite hatred, you will be dealt with. And rightly so.

    Kevsterion. In Northern Ireland we used to have the Spastic Society. Disability groups have asked we don’t use that term. We now broadly don’t. LGBT groups ask that the term ‘homosexual’ is used only in a clinical or scientific context. Please respect that.

    While I welcome that you support full equality for my community, I must impress upon you the that equality is much wider than our bedrooms.
    Me being able to walk through Belfast city Centre holding my boyfriends hand without fear of abuse or harassment is a very easy example. If my partner was a women, i would never have to think twice about this.
    Having out role models is critically important for our community. And the first openly gay NFL drafted star, is momentous. Just like the first time they drafted a black man.
    In Northern Ireland, having our first elected openly (and emphasis on openly) LGBT MLA or MP will be momentous.
    It tells LGBT youth that these spaces are not denied to them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.