The news is not that Missouri All-American defensive end Michael Sam is gay. The news is that when he told his teammates in August, it so tore apart the locker room that the Tigers won the SEC East.
That has always been one of the arguments. A gay teammate would be unwelcome in the locker room and definitely in the showers. A gay teammate would cause division, make teammates feel uncomfortable.
Except that Sam didn't. An openly gay player at Missouri turned out to be a bonfire in want of a spark. His teammates nodded, and they moved on. There really was nothing to see here.
That alone speaks to the power of generational change. Missouri, the flagship public university in a red state, made itself hospitable to an openly gay football player. In 1973, the University of Missouri Board of Curators decided not to recognize a student group, Gay Lib, that proposed to serve as a forum for homosexuality. The board appointed a well-respected attorney to establish the facts of the case. Among those "facts":
• Homosexuality is a compulsive type of behavior.
• What happens to a latent or potential homosexual from the standpoint of his environment can cause him to become or not to become a homosexual.
• That homosexuality is an illness and should and can be treated as such and is clearly abnormal behavior.
The university denied recognition. Four years later, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the university must recognize Gay Lib on First Amendment grounds.
"Apparently," Darrell Napton, a plaintiff in the case and now a professor at South Dakota State, said Sunday night, "there has been a lot of change in the last few decades. That has been true all over the country."
Napton couldn't speak to what gay life was like at Missouri four decades ago. He isn't gay. He signed onto the case on First Amendment grounds. But really, we've read this story before. Gays will foment problems in the locker room, as African-Americans would before them, as Jews would in country clubs, as Catholics would if elected to office. The "facts" that back up such assertions wilt when exposed to sunlight.
The baseball team in St. Louis, Missouri's second-largest city, allegedly wanted to boycott the National League rather than play against Jackie Robinson. Less than two decades later, led by future Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Lou Brock, the Cardinals won the World Series. It is ancient history now, but the barriers in the locker room didn't come down easily.
We live in a different time. The Missouri players already knew Michael Sam, and respected him, and loved him the way that teammates can love one another. What revolution he fomented in coming out to his teammates and coaches occurred from within.
Sam attended a Missouri that has changed. Nearly four decades after the Gay Lib case, the Missouri athletic director reminded everyone Sunday night that the university theme is "One Mizzou." Gary Pinkel, the head coach, said, "We talk all the time here in our program about how one of our core values is to respect the cultural differences of others, and this certainly applies."