Steve Gleason is beyond worrying about the politics of the locker room, or of the world, for that matter.
The ALS disease that has trapped the former New Orleans Saints football player in a wheelchair has also freed him to speak his mind about former Missouri football star Michael Sam’s announcement Sunday that he is gay.
Gleason tweeted his opinions on the Sam story Sunday. He said it better than I ever could:
“If I had to make a prediction … I think the @Mikesamfootball story will end up being a good story,” Gleason tweeted. “Players care about how (you) play & act.
“It appears that @Mikesamfootball is a very high character guy. Beyond athletics, this is what you need in the locker room, & on the field.”
Some would say Sam’s announcement isn’t a big deal.
It shouldn’t be in 2014. But it is. If you are or know someone who is gay, you know or know someone who has struggled with how to tell their family, their friends, their teammates a basic truth about themselves. Even Sam came out to his father and some other members of his family only shortly before making his announcement to the world in a string of media interviews. He told his Missouri teammates in August.
Some will call Sam a latter-day Jackie Robinson. There is a big difference. When Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, there were no black players in major league baseball.
There have been and undoubtedly are gay players in every NFL, college and high school football locker room in America. Here’s hoping Sam’s story will give them the voice to end their silence.
One day, openly gay athletes in football and other sports won’t be a big deal, just like baseball players of color hasn’t been a story for decades.
For now, it is. And it will be for Sam all the way through May’s NFL draft and through his firsts as a pro football player: first day in the locker room, in practice, in a game.
Here’s my prediction: Sam will still be a middle-round draft choice. He won’t go undrafted, because the NFL can’t allow itself to be seen as insensitive on this issue (NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s brother, Michael, is openly gay and was quick to laud Sam as a pioneer).
Some teams will silently shy away from Sam, from the controversy that’s sure to (temporarily) follow. But someone will draft him. Some owner or general manager will pattern themselves as a latter-day Branch Rickey and add him to their roster simply because he can help them win.
Sam will encounter prejudice, a player or players who are uncomfortable with his presence. Someone will embody what New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said in a Super Bowl week interview about a lack of acceptance in the locker room.
“Imagine if he’s the guy next to me and … I get dressed, naked, taking a shower … and it just so happens he looks at me,” Vilma told the NFL Network in his original interview, personal remarks for which he has since apologized. “How am I supposed to respond?”
I have news for you, NFL players:
You have gotten dressed and taken a shower next to a gay teammate. He just, for whatever reason, was unwilling to share that fact about himself.
Michael Sam was willing. And he will save a lot of football players, a lot of athletes, a lot of people, a lot of pain in the future.
And that, as Steve Gleason said, will end up being a good story indeed.