Michael Sam Didn’t Get Here on His Own

A movement that's been fueled in no small part by individual men called to collective action could transform the NFL.

By Jamilah King Feb 17, 2014

Before Michael Sam was known to the world as an openly gay football player — before the sports pundits debated his upcoming NFL draft stock, before his future teammates and opponents publicly fretted over their locker room showers, before he became a hero of the nation’s top gay rights organizations — there was the dinner party in Los Angeles.

Seven men, some gay, some not, gathered at the home of publicist Howard Bragman at the behest of NFL agents Joe Barkett and Cameron Weiss of Empire Athletes, the agency Sam had chosen to represent his professional interests. They included Cyd Zeigler and Jim Buzinski of Outsports.com; Dave Kopay, the former NFL running back who had come out in 1975; former NFL players Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbedajo, who both emerged as vocal allies and lost their jobs because of it; another former player, Wade Davis; former Major League baseball player Billy Bean, who came out after his playing days with the San Diego Padres; and Sam, the University of Missouri star defensive end who is poised to become the league’s first openly gay active football player in nearly four decades. 

Each man was there with a very specific purpose, according to reports from Outsports and Sports Illustrated: Ziegler had been covering gay athletes since 1999 and made a mean peach cobbler. Davis could relate to Sam’s experience as a gay black boy growing up in a small Southern city and knew how to appreciate a good rack of ribs. In his own way, each man had done his part to speak out against homophobia in a sport that promotes a very rigid form of masculinity. Officially, the dinner party was a "coming out party" for Sam, an opportunity to acknowledge the small but powerful support network that surrounds him. Unofficially, it was a celebration of all the work that had led up to this moment where, in less than 24 hours, Sam’s truth would be splashed across the front page of the New York Times. But first there were drinks to be had, gay bars to be visited, and karaoke to be sung at one in the morning.

Sam’s support network represents the tectonic shift about to take place in America’s manliest pastime. For years, there’s been a push to find and celebrate an openly gay player in the NFL, and now that he’s almost there, the league, its players, coaches and fans will see the fruits of a movement that’s been fueled in no small part by individual men called to collective action.

Take Davis, for example. He retired from the NFL Europe in 2003 and didn’t come out as gay until years later, after he moved to New York City and put 2,000 miles between himself and his hometown of Little Rock, where he risked someone tapping him on the shoulder at a gay bar, furrowing a brow and asking, "Don’t I know you?" He wasn’t an indignant young man who wasn’t afraid of the world’s judgements; he was a man who loved sports and other men and didn’t quite know how to reconcile the two. So in New York City he read lots of James Baldwin and did his homework on Sylvia Rivera and learned to appreciate the people who had traveled this path before him. But even more important than the homework he did was the day job he took with the Hetrick-Martin Institute, an advocacy organization for gay youth. There, his official title was Assistant Director of Job Readiness, but what he took away were the lessons from queer folks as young as 13 and 14 who risked the homes they lived in and the families that raised them to be themselves. He thought, "What the hell am I waiting for? I’m a grown man with a job, a little bit of money, and not nearly as much to lose."

And so he didn’t just tell the world his truth, he surrounded himself with it. He joined a local gay flag football league and wrote publicly about his experiences. He joined the advisory board of Go Athletes!, a national network of LGBT athletes and allies. Then he became executive director of a group called You Can Play and co-founded another called You Belong with his good friend Darnell Moore, both aimed at developing young people’s leadership skills through sports.

When he got Bragman’s call to come to Los Angeles to celebrate Sam’s bravery, he didn’t hesitate, and when he writes about Sam on Facebook, he calls him "my brother" because at dinner they connected by speaking the language that only black men raised in Southern cities could possible know. He, along with Zeigler and the others, are fielding the dozens of interview requests coming Sam’s way so that he can focus on football. They know that if he doesn’t make it to the league, this moment won’t mean a thing. His visibility, his playing on Sundays, is all the advocacy he needs to do.

"The NFL is not this homophobic place that we like to imagine it being," Davis says after only two hours of sleep due to the media firestorm sparked by Sam’s going public. He believes that players on every team know that there’s at least one gay player in their midst, and it really doesn’t matter to them at all as long as he can actually play. Sure, the straight players may not be skilled or interested enough to talk to the media about it, but doesn’t it mean anything, Wade says. That all of these guys are keeping their mouths shut to protect their teammates’ privacy? That’s brotherhood.

But it’s the silence, the unofficial "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy of what’s arguably America’s biggest cultural institution that everyone at that dinner party in L.A. wanted to vanquish. Yet change doesn’t come without consequences, and few know this better than Kluwe and Ayanbedajo. The average NFL career only lasts about three and half years, yet both men were in their 30s and maybe it was their age that gave them a more mature perspective, or at least the practical sense that the clock was ticking and they didn’t have much to lose. So when the state of Maryland was debating its same sex marriage ballot initiative, Ayanbedajo, a linebacker for the state’s only professional football team, said publicly that he supported it. And when Maryland State Representative Emmett C. Burns Jr. wrote to Ayanbedajo’s boss, Raven’s owner Steve Bisciotti, demanding that Bisciotti "take the necessary action … to inhibit such expressions from your employee," Chris Kluwe, a kicker for the Minnesota Vikings, published a response to Burns on Deadspin siding with Ayanbedajo and reassuring the legislator that gay people "won’t magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster." Eventually someone did take necessary actions to inhibit such expressions from their employees. Kluwe was fired, and after winning the Super Bowl in 2013, Ayanbadejo was released.

For an institution that’s built its brand on world class athleticism, the NFL is its own worst player: too big to change quickly, too slow to know when it’s coming. There are hundreds of people — scouts, trainers, agents, general managers, owners — who have a say in whether or not a player ultimately takes the field, and not everyone will be on the same page. Wade says that he’s optimistic about the league’s commitment to inclusivity because he spends a good deal of time traveling to and from its headquarters in midtown Manhattan, meeting with people like Troy Bennett, the league’s Director of Diversity, about ways the league can engage. When I tried to reach Bennett, a representative sent back the following statement: "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."

But it’s the teammates who will ultimately need to welcome and support Sam, and not too many people were asking how they felt until Cyd Ziegler of Outsports put it atop his list of editorial priorities back in 2012. He was inspired by his conversation with a New York Times sports reporter who said that sexuality shouldn’t be discussed in football because it just didn’t matter to the game. But he disagreed. Despite that 18th century revolution led by George Washington, America did, in fact, have a King, and it was football. No other cultural institution has done more to define American masculinity than the NFL, and when that masculinity acted out, Ziegler didn’t think it was fair to vilify players for being closed minded about a subject no one had bothered to ask them about. So he did. "Would you mind playing with a gay teammate?" he asked. RG3 didn’t mind, neither would Trent Richardson, or Ahman Green or Javon Kearse. "A lot of them had gay family members and they understand the issues a lot better [than they’re given credit for]," Zeigler told me.

But Michael Sam is a different story. He is the issue that we all hope his skeptics can understand and, at the very least, let him play on Sundays.