The Missouri Football Tigers are a few weeks out from one of the best seasons in the history of the program. They won the SEC East, the Cotton Bowl and the grudging admiration of many that believed Mizzou just couldn’t hang in the SEC.
And it was definitely a team effort: from the stout wall that is E.J. “No” Gaines, to the inspirational comeback of Henry Josey, DGB, James Franklin, Maty Mauk, Kony Ealy, Andrew Wilson and Michael Sam.
Sam was the heart and soul of the usually stout Missouri defense and racked up the SEC defensive awards. The SEC coaches voted him co-defensive player of the year but the members of the Associated Press who cover the SEC decided to give him that title outright. He was also the democratically elected MVP of the team — he played well, got the respect of his teammates and was a vital part of securing Missouri’s second ever Cotton Bowl trophy.
Oh, and there’s one more thing: he’s gay.
The star defensive lineman came out this week, in the looming shadow of the NFL draft where he hopes to find a team that wants him for who he is. This fact was no secret in Columbia, where the rumors were swirling even before he told the rest of the Tiger team before the 2013-14 season.
Yeah, he told them like he’s telling us now: and to their credit, those young men that were prepared to fight on the gridiron for Ol’ Mizzou responded positively. A person is a person, a man is a man and let’s go out there and win us some football games.
It is inspiring that a group of athletes can come together and put together a season like that: black or white, gay or straight, from Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Florida and even Missouri. They can all come together, under the banner of a school from Missouri and win some football despite their differences. They all had different backgrounds, different families and different difficulties but they came together to be champions.
And yet there are people who would tell you that the presence of a gay man on a football team is distracting and cancerous. That America’s game is so stocked with people who would be uncomfortable with such a presence that it just couldn’t work in most NFL locker rooms.
But this seems strange to me. Do we really expect less from professional grown men than we do college students? The Missouri Tigers rallied together, not for millions of dollars in pay and endorsement deals but for the thrill of victory and the chance at a good education. Would an NFL player really stand up and say, “Yes, I will be the one who drives a stake into the team because that guy there makes me feel weird!”
Of course, the rate of gay acceptance is higher in younger people. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 76 percent of 18-34 year old responders think that “gay/lesbian relationships should be legal” compared to only 61 percent of 35-54 year old responders.
But immediately after Sam came out to the world his draft stock began to fall. Maybe it was because the media blitz surrounding his announcement convinced the scouts to take a closer look at Sam — maybe the attention caused a simple re-evaluation all over the country and multiple people decided they didn’t like him as much as they used to. Or maybe he started to travel down the draft boards simply because he’s gay.
The idea that he could go undrafted is absurd. He is not a perfect football player, and he will need a little work. But in the collected history of the draft only one SEC Defensive Player of the Year has fallen past the second round. If the SEC really is the finest conference in football, and if it’s really the home of some of the stoutest defenses in the history of college football then Sam won’t go undrafted.
Each year, Advocate magazine releases a list of the top gay-friendly cities. Washington D.C., Seattle, Atlanta, St. Louis, San Francisco, Oakland and surprisingly Pittsburgh are all cities that both have an NFL franchise and are in the top 15 most gay-friendly cities in the most recent rankings. Even if it’s in one of the later rounds, there will be a team that takes a chance on him. San Francisco for those reasons and even more so because they already have two Tigers on their defense.
And there’s that old bit, “I don’t care what he is or does, as long as he can play football!” What if he’s just all right? Exactly how good does he have to be to live his life off of the field how he chooses?
I’d like to wish Sam and all of the Mizzou players who declared for the draft good luck in the NFL.