United We Sam

 

BY ERIC SCHROEDER

 

Just under a year ago, professional basketball player Jason Collins became the first active major professional athlete to come out publicly as being gay. It was a major change in the athletic world, one that it was ready for. Collins was openly accepted by numerous players, most significantly Kobe Bryant.

This past month, University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Samcame out as being gay also. Unlike Collins, whose professional career is nearing an end, Sam’s career is just beginning. Coming off of a phenomenal year on the field individually, and also as a team, Sam finished with 11 ½ sacks to lead SEC on his way to being named Co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year as well as receiving a unanimous All-American nod. He did this while helping Missouri to a 12-2 record, making a SEC Championship appearance and receiving a Cotton Bowl victory.

On Feb. 9, Sam officially announced his homosexuality during an interview with ESPN. Since then reactions have been overwhelmingly supportive. I was able to speak with University of Missouri student Michael Mandell about the atmosphere on campus.

“There has been nothing but support for Michael,” Mandell informed me. There have been shirts made saying “Stand With Sam,” and there was a standing ovation when he hoisted the Cotton Bowl trophy up at the Missouri basketball game on Feb. 15. Most notably, according to Mandell, was the unity shown by the school when Westboro Baptist Church arrived on campus.

According to their website, the WBC “conducts peaceful demonstrations opposing the fag lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth.” The student body responded to their presence, as what Mandell estimated was a counter protest of about 7-8,000 students. These students formed a wall over a mile stretch of road on campus to meet Westboro as they arrived in Columbia, all in support of Sam. One of the most telling signs was the fact that “everyone stood against Westboro, no one stood with them,” as was told to me by Mandell.

This support goes to show how accepting and opening our world is becoming. While the public had just found out, Sam told his teammates back at the beginning of the season. They, in turn, did not share the information with anyone and stood beside Sam as he had his best season, and the team far exceeded expectations in the extremely competitive SEC conference.

Hopefully Sam’s coming out can help encourage other athletes who feel pressured to hide their sexual orientation to do so as well. While Sam is certainly not the first, he does have one of the highest profiles of any other athlete to make such an announcement. As an All-American athlete and potential first round draft pick, Sam has a huge platform. His platform is important because it has helped draw attention to the issue and will hopefully make it easier for future athletes to come out as well. If used correctly, Sam can greatly change the relationship of the sports world and gay athletes in a positive manner. Mandell figures that this announcement, as well as how the University of Missouri handled everything, can act as a model for other players and schools. We should also take note of Mizzou’s unity during this time and look at our own campus. Such support should not be limited to a high profile athlete.

The biggest concern now is how his announcement will affect his NFL dreams. There is no doubt that Sam will get to play in the NFL, but it is a matter of where. The concern is how he will be received in professional locker rooms where there is still some uneasiness about having an openly gay player. No matter what though, Sam has rocked not only the sports world, but also the rest of the world with his announcement. There is so much positivity to come from this announcement, and Sam has taken it all in stride as he continues to stay focused on finishing school and preparing for the NFL draft at the beginning of May. I am confident when I say that no matter where he ends up, look for Sam to have an immediate impact come next fall.

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