In collaboration with Sarah Fielding...
Since Michael Sam’s coming-out, are we any closer to equality in sport?
Over the last decades attitudes towards gay Americans have come forward leaps and bounds. Fifteen years ago major networks were so afraid of screening the Ellen coming out episode that many dropped the show; today they’d likely be clamouring for that privilege. In the House of Representatives, which at one point acted as a bully pulpit for bigots, six LGBT congressmen sit as equals.
But until gay Americans are represented fairly in all areas of life, there’s still work to be done and there’s one field where the absence of gay people is becoming glaringly obvious: sport. That is, of course, until Michael Sam shocked the world by coming out last year.
Sam’s profile rose immediately, and much of the response to his announcement was gratifyingly positive. He was voted GQ’s Man of the Year, then made global headlines by proposing to his boyfriend in a church overlooking the Vatican City. What better symbol could there be of America’s new, enlightened attitude towards gay rights?
But if that’s the case why does an All-American, in the prime of his career, find himself without a team for the 2015 season? There is even betting on the draft, with sportsbooks offering “prop bets” on whether Sam will be on any NFL team’s roster next season, with the odds considerably against. The media have even taken to calling him “controversial” or “mercurial,” terms that imply he has discipline issues despite little or no evidence. Some are convinced any contract for Sam is a “liberal conspiracy” as, according to them, he lacks the talent to play in the NFL. In a particularly ugly throwback, ESPN even discussed whether Sam showers separately from his (then) teammates at the St. Louis Rams.
The only “controversy” that Sam has created or invited is by coming out and being a vocal supporter of gay rights in sport. This shouldn’t be controversial at all, its a right which would be defended for players discussing other issues. But it is a testament to Michael Sam’s courage that he has stepped away from allegations that his sexuality led to his difficulty in finding a team.
In many ways the case of Michael Sam is comparable to that of Justin Fashanu; the first (and so far only) soccer player to come out as gay. Before coming out, Fashanu was enjoying a stellar career and became the first player to attract a £1 million price tag. After coming out Fashanu’s career stalled and he spent his remaining playing career doing short spells at unfancied clubs.
Since Fashanu came out, no active soccer player any top league has dared follow. This must, in part, be due to the appalling treatment and sluts Fashanu faced from fans and the press. In a more progressive age, surely the NFL can avoid repeating that mistake and help make sport another equal arena for all.