It may seem oxymoronic to ask of a league that basically allows its players to give one another brain damage. Yet what the National Football League must do in the case of Michael Sam is ensure that a mere prospect be treated with respect.
Sam, an All-America defensive end who is expected to be selected in the NFL draft, announced Sunday that he is gay. In a mark of how far American culture has evolved, early support for Sam (at least that measured on social media) appeared effusive, while open criticism seemed more muted. The NFL officially responded to Sam's news with a warm welcome, while some of its more narrow-minded employees carped anonymously about the sanctity of the locker room (as if Sam had used a segregated locker while leading the University of Missouri Tigers in sacks and tackles for a loss).
The league cannot control the thoughts and words of players and coaches, of course. And the NFL draft, like those of other professional sports, by definition includes more failures than successes. Sam, at about 6 feet 2 inches tall and 260 pounds, would be a mere oak among the giant sequoias who man defensive lines in the NFL. At the same time, he might not have the speed and agility to run in the defensive backfield as a linebacker.
Yet the NFL, as the most popular and successful league in North America, is not powerless. It should use that popularity and success to expand the bounds of what's normal and to diminish fear rooted in ignorance. One of the ways the league can accomplish these goals -- and to enlarge the pool of talent as well -- is by easing the path of gay athletes. In that sense, its early response to Michael Sam's news has been encouraging.
At some point, an athlete's sexual orientation will cease to be homepage news. Until then, it's up to leagues, teams, athletes and, not incidentally, fans to proclaim that it should not matter.
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