Postcard from America: U.S. sport leads by example in anti-homophobia fight
Michael Sam's agent Cameron Weiss says the NFL has been "amazing" since the defensive end came out.
March 17th, 2014
11:05 AM ET

Postcard from America: U.S. sport leads by example in anti-homophobia fight

These are seminal times in the United States. In the space of just a year, the landscape of professional sports here has been transformed with the emergence of three openly gay athletes.

Robbie Rogers, who now plays for the LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer, broke the mould, before Jason Collins became the first openly gay player in any of the four major U.S. sports.

The 35-year-old Collins was only signed on a 10 day contract by the Brooklyn Nets (subsequently signing for another 10 days) but the impact was huge.

So think what it will be like if Michael Sam joins the NFL. Sam is a defensive end and has just completed his education at the University of Missouri –if he’s drafted in May, he’d become the first active NFL player to have declared his homosexuality publicly.

In the macho world of testosterone-fuelled locker-rooms, homosexuality is seen as the last taboo.

As Rogers recently told CNN, “I’m in a love/hate relationship with football. I love it because I’ve done it my whole life and it’s brought me so much joy and I could, when I was on the field, you forget about it. You’re judged for what you do on the field,

"But there’s everything around football and politics. There’s the locker room that, when I was younger, before I came out, really hurt me. Stadiums where, especially in England, you hear the most homophobic things.”

At the age of just 25, Rogers felt that he had to retire in order to live a more honest life as a gay man. It was only the positive reaction from his peers, particularly in his native America, that prompted him to play on with The Galaxy.

The handful of prominent athletes who’ve come out recently have waited until their professional careers were over, notably the NBA’s John Amaechi, soccer’s Thomas Hizlsperger and rugby’s Gareth Thomas.

In cricket, Steven Davies was a rare exception, he came out in 2011 and continued playing. He told me then that the reaction from his peers had been very positive.

It remains to be seen how Sam will fare in the next few months. NFL teams don’t have a reputation for eagerly embracing "distractions" and as Sam learned at the NFL Combine - where players are scouted –the media circus was only really interested in one thing: his homosexuality.

However, Sam's agent Cameron Weiss is optimistic, telling me that the NFL has been "amazing" and that from the interaction they’ve had with the teams so far, his client’s sexual orientation is a

Despite football’s uber-macho image in the U.S., Weiss actually thinks that an NFL locker-room could be the most welcoming to an athlete like Sam.

"A football locker-room is the biggest in pro-sports, you’ve got 53 guys and the most diverse offering of personal backgrounds," said Sam's agent. "I would think such an environment would be well-suited to be accepting of a player with a different sexual orientation.”

Weiss admits that he was surprised by the positive reaction to Sam’s announcement.

While they were expecting it to be mixed, they were instead "overwhelmed" by the support. “It’s a seminal time in the U.S., the issue of gay marriage is front and center and in 2014, it’s time for everyone to put these pre-conceived notions - that have held us back as a society - behind us.”

Anthony Caruso is a sports attorney with special expertise in American football and he agrees the landscape is changing.

He cautions that any player whose "public profile is bigger than his statistics" can be a problem, but he thinks the novelty of Sam or any other openly gay player will quickly wear off.

“The lines between sports and entertainment are blurring very quickly,” said Caruso. "The courage shown by Rogers, Collins and Sam will enable others to take the same brave steps. That’s important, it’s a good thing for sport.”

As Neil Armstrong so eloquently put it on the lunar surface 45 years ago, the emergence of three openly gay athletes is only "one small step," but it's a milestone that will perhaps give others the courage to live their lives more freely without having to sacrifice their sporting aspirations.

But make no mistake that there is still a very long way to go. Assuming Sam makes it to the NFL he’ll be the only openly gay footballer player out of almost 1700. And don't forget in 33 of the states in the U.S., gay marriage is still illegal.

But credit where credit is due. Not everyone would argue that the US is the most tolerant of societies in the western world, but in the sports world at least, it is tentatively taking small steps and leading by example.

soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. cg

    I forget cnn has to fill in its gay quota for the day

    March 17, 2014 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  2. a11622026

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    March 18, 2014 at 2:34 am | Reply
  3. ******

    You know, of all the big sports, baseball is probably the most tolerent

    There was an openly gay player in the major leagues back in the 80s, and a few years ago, there was a japanese ex-gay porn actor who played in the major leagues.

    March 26, 2014 at 5:31 pm | Reply

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