What happens next is what's most interesting here. Michael Sam's decision to come out as gay in advance of his arrival in the NFL is courageous and historic and should be celebrated as such. The best way to celebrate it would be to leave him alone and let him play football.
But that's not going to happen, at least not right away. This is going to be the story of the week and the story of next week's scouting combine and one of the big stories of the draft and of the early days of training camp for whichever team picks Sam. The manner in which this story is received and covered by the outside world will say a lot about where we are as a society in 2014. We've been covering and anticipating this story for a while without a name or a date. Now that we have both, let's all hope we're as well prepared to handle it as he is.
A generation ago, the reaction to this would have been far different and much less friendly. And the generational identity of so many NFL decision-makers and media discussion-framers has to be part of the reason gay football players remain reticent. There will be people in positions of power and influence who react badly to this. Those people will justify their reactions with everything from cultural prejudice to religion to haughty NFL pragmatism -- i.e., teams will pass on a gay player because they don't want to be subjected to the extra attention.
Surely, this young man knows all of this and is making his decision at least in part because of it. Once Sam's generation is the one pulling the strings, this will all be much less of a thing. But right now, as he has presumably considered, the way in which the outside world reacts to his announcement is about to become the dominant part of the story.
There will be a rush to ask players, current and recently retired, about the way this will be received in the locker room. The outside world posits NFL players as clownish Neanderthals who will grunt insults at their first openly gay teammate as a means of managing their fear and discomfort, and it assumes said grunting is a primary reason no active NFL players have yet come out. But like many of the elements we easily ascribe to the NFL's locker-room culture, this is a caricature unsupported by facts.
By and large, NFL players are twentysomethings or early-thirtysomethings for whom gay friends and colleagues are much more openly accepted than they were by previous generations. And by and large, NFL players aren't going to be bothered by the arrival of a gay teammate as much as they'll be amused or annoyed by the attention that follows. This has been a topic in locker rooms for several years now, and when it comes up, players routinely shrug. Sure, you get the occasional knucklehead who makes an inappropriate crack, but I've got to believe the same thing happens on Wall Street when someone in the investment banking firm comes out. It's not fair or accurate to assume it'll be worse in the NFL just because it's all-male or because they change clothes in front of each other or because their jobs involve beating each other up.
Most NFL players would tell you they'll welcome anyone who can help the team win, and that they have bigger things to worry about than the sexual orientation of one of their teammates. That's why the more significant part of this story is whether the rest of the world can say the same.
Michael Sam will shoulder the burden of being the face of this huge sports-in-society story we've been anticipating for years. He should be commended for taking it on. Let's see if we can't all make sure we handle it commendably, too.