Have you heard of Michael Sam? Neither had I. But over the coming weeks Sam could become one of the biggest names in professional sports, even with the hype surrounding the Winter Olympics.

This season was filled with story after story about homophobia in football. First, the famous Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin bullying case came to light, highlighting exchanges via text and voicemail where Incognito repeatedly used gay slurs. Bullying in NFL locker rooms was not a novel concept, but the extent to which Incognito took it and the vulgarity he chose to use definitely raised some eyebrows.

Then a few weeks ago, a blog post was published and later reposted by Perez Hilton insinuating that Aaron Rodgers may have been in a relationship with his roommate and assistant Kevin Lanflisi. Rodgers denied the claim, but the sports community nonetheless was awash with speculation.

And in recent weeks, former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, an outspoken advocate for equal rights, released a piece exposing the Vikings’ organization as structurally homophobic.

Finally on Sunday, ESPN’s Chris Connelly and the New York Times’ John Branch were the first to report that Michael Sam, an anticipated middle-round NFL draft prospect and former defensive end for the University of Missouri, is openly gay.

The official statement by the NFL on Sunday in regards to Sam’s announcement was, “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”

The league, in this statement, really hit the nail on the head. Michael Sam is a football player. A great one, at that; he was named the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year last season. He tallied 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss during his senior season with the Tigers. In my view, all 6 feet and 2 inches, 260 pounds of him can love whom he wants and contribute to an NFL team.

But, per a recent Sports Illustrated article, his sexuality probably will affect his draft status. In the piece, NFL executives and coaches were polled anonymously, and each participant said they think Sam’s announcement will cause him to slide in the draft. Sam’s presence as a potential distraction in the media and in the locker room, one former general manager said, will cause teams to steer clear.

One player personnel assistant said, “I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet. In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”

Like it or not, National Football League, the day is here. Not the “coming decade or two,” but now. And, in all fairness, doesn’t now seem like the right time?
Macklemore’s “Same Love” was performed at the Grammy’s and sales of the track boomed in the aftermath. Hip-hop and rap, a notoriously homophobic leg of the music business, saw one of its most popular songs embracing the same-sex community, not bashing it. If rap could move in the right direction, football should be able to as well.

As to the question of when change will really happen, we need to focus on attitude. And where does the attitude change start? At the youth level. In high school locker rooms. At college, during the most rapid growth period in anyone’s life. And with the Internet, social media and more connection among people than ever before, peoples’ differences simply should not seem as different.

I understand that it is no one’s job to tell other people how to think. People need to change on their own, and as time goes on I anticipate that they will. But, to me, it is simply so counterintuitive to the teachings of the game of football — the ultimate team sport, where 11 players must act as one complete unit — to say that a locker room is not ready for a gay player.

The great Vince Lombardi said it the best: “Individual commitment to a group effort — that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”

Players should see that anyone who has the physical ability, mental toughness and willpower to commit to a group will certainly do so, regardless of whom they love off the field.

Change has always been a part of sports, and change helps teams win. Good luck to Michael Sam in the draft. And good luck to the Olympians who are dealing with similar personal struggles in Sochiright now. If it is any consolation, I am rooting for you.

Matt Castaldo is a junior in the College. More than a Game appears every Tuesday.

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