Niagara Gazette

February 12, 2014

MEILER: Sam's story will provide true measure of homophobia in sports

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Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Jason Collins was technically the first active male athlete to reveal that he is gay. Michael Sam will be the first to deal with the repercussions.

Sam, an All-American senior at Missouri, came out in an interview with ESPN on Sunday night, just over one week before the NFL scouting combine and less than three months before the NFL draft.

When Collins came out in May 2013, he was met with almost universal support. He was lauded for his bravery, and rightly so — at least to a degree. Collins had lived and worked in a world of boyish machismo for 12 years in the NBA, four years in college and many more growing up in locker rooms on high school teams or on the AAU circuit, all while hiding a big part of who he was.

This reporter remembers him best for battling — alright, consistently fouling — Shaquille O'Neal while playing alongside Jason Kidd in the Los Angeles Lakers-New Jersey Nets final in 2002. O'Neal now works for TNT and is a minority owner of the Sacramento Kings. Kidd is head coach of the Nets, who now reside in Brooklyn. Collins was 34 years old last May, his season over and his contract expired. He'd averaged less than four points and four rebounds per game in 2012-13. We'll never know how much his announcement had to do with him not getting a contract for 2013-14, but that no team would be interested was at least justifiable from a basketball standpoint.

That's where Sam's situation differs. Despite his stellar senior season (11 1/2 sacks, 19 TFLs, SEC Defensive Player of the Year), he is considered undersized for a defensive end, standing just over 6-foot-1. Still, most analysts label him as a mid-round draft pick, a useful player with good leadership qualities who can provide pass rush depth and contribute on special teams. NFL teams are built on the Michael Sams of the world and are always looking for that type of player on a rookie contract.

There is no football reason for Sam not to end up on an NFL roster after the draft (May 8), which is what makes this situation so interesting. The NBA could feign tolerance while writing off Collins as too old or unproductive, if the reality were that no team was comfortable signing him. (That's purely hypothetical, of course.) The NFL can't. If Sam falls in the draft or isn't selected, there will be a loud contingent of supporters claiming prejudice. And they'll probably be right.

Sam has to end up on an NFL roster, but where? NFL locker rooms are probably the worst of America's four major sports in terms boorish bravado. They're the largest, and many players come from less-than-perfect backgrounds and are undereducated, despite the time they spent at colleges as "students." Add in the violent nature of the sport and it's easy to understand why masculinity rules.

The NFL is also an incredibly hostile work environment, as we learned this season through the Miami Dolphins. If Richie Incognito can drum someone like Jonathan Martin out of the league, what will happen to Sam if he ends up with the wrong teammates?

The league is already dealing with more than its share of challenges, ranging from concussions to hazing to drug use, both recreational and performance-enhancing. Sam's story may well end up being the most interesting.

Respond to Niagara Gazette sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler or by email at mike.meiler@niagara-gazette.com.