FILE - In this Sept. 8, 2012 file photo, Missouri's Michael Sam (52) runs onto the field along with their teammates before the start of an NCAA college football game against Georgia in Columbia, Mo. Michael Sam hopes his ability is all that matters, not his sexual orientation. Missouri's All-America defensive end came out to the entire country Sunday night, Feb. 9, 2014, and could become the first openly gay player in America's most popular sport. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
Phil Emery was driving home from work late Sunday night when he heard snippets on the radio of Michael Sam’s groundbreaking interview that revealed he was — openly and proudly — gay.
The Bears’ general manager said Monday what I earnestly hope to be true across the NFL: The co-SEC defensive player of the year will be judged simply by his “skill set as a football player,” both on tape and at the NFL Scouting Combine next week in Indianapolis.
“Each and every player in the NFL is a unique individual, as we all are in life,” said Emery, who, like other NFL teams Monday, praised the Missouri defensive end/linebacker for his courage. “We all ultimately gain respect in our jobs by how well we perform at our chosen profession and if the level in which we perform adds positively to the collective goal of success.”
Translation: If he can help, we can use him.
Whether that fits the Bears is more a question of scheme than sexuality.
Sam, a projected middle-round pick, is probably an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. The Bears, desperate for pass rushers, have yet to commit to a scheme. Coach Marc Trestman said they want one that fits their personnel and “we don’t know who those guys are going to be, particularly on the defensive side.”
Bears tight end Martellus Bennett wouldn’t have an issue with Sam, tweeting that, “One day it won’t be such a huge ordeal to state who you are as a person.”
“That day will reveal true progression.”
“Cheers to Day 1.”
I’ll raise my glass to that.
And it would be wonderful for it
to be that simple — in the meri-
tocracy of sports, Sam would be chosen based on his skills and with no regard to his sexual preference.
Generations of players could tell you otherwise.
Sam is poised to become the first openly gay active male athlete in the history of the four major American team sports. (NBA player Jason Collins, who came out last year, never signed with a team after his announcement.)
You can count on one hand the NFL players who came out as gay even after retiring. There are five, starting with former running back Dave Kopay in 1975.
Compare that to a 2011 Williams Institute study that found 3.5 percent of adults are gay, and it’s no stretch to say that hundreds of pro athletes have, over the years, kept their homosexuality hidden.
I first met Kopay in 2003, while I was researching my graduate thesis project — at Missouri, a school I’ve never been more proud of — about the gay issue in the big four American sports.
“I thought there would be more at this stage of the game,” Kopay told me then, at his home in West Hollywood, Calif., shaking his head. “I spoke out in 1975. That’s a lifetime ago.”
Society has changed, even in the last decade. Most of us have gay co-workers, friends or family. Gay marriage is legal in 16 states, and the federal government plans to expand same-sex benefits.
Sports kept homosexuality as its last taboo.
Starting with football, they’ve been the last bastion of to-the-gills machismo, and that doesn’t jibe with society’s idea of homosexuality.
A recent Harris Poll found that fans identified the NFL, more than any other pro sports league, as the one in which it would be most difficult to come out as gay.
Turn on the Winter Olympics, held in a nation with an anti-gay law. Or listen, just last year, during Super Bowl week, when San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver said a theoretical gay teammate would “got to get up out of here” and off his team.
That’s why Sam matters.
I always believed the first
openly gay active athlete would have the security — with a high salary and with a guaranteed contract — to be himself without fear of backlash.
Sam has neither.
But he already has the support of his college coaches and teammates, who knew his sexuality all season, of the quiet club of gay pro athletes, past and present, and, judging by Monday, many in the sports world.
Most importantly, he has the freedom to be himself.
And soon, he’ll have a job.