Missouri Tigers defensive lineman Michael Sam made headlines over the weekend by announcing he is homosexual. The All-American gave interviews to ESPN and the New York Times ahead of the 2014 NFL Draft, where he is expected to be an early pick.
“I am an openly, proud gay man,” said Sam, who led the SEC with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss in 2013, and helped lead Missouri to the SEC Championship game and a victory in the Cotton Bowl. Sam was voted the SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
Sam’s decision is being hailed as a brave stand in some corners, and will surely be a source of controversy and discussion in the weeks prior to the draft. For their part, the NFL praised Sam’s decision.
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” the league office said in a statement. “Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”
Regardless of one’s position on the issue, Sam’s announcement is surely courageous. But does it also smack of savvy marketing?
“I understand how big this is,” Sam said in making the announcement. “It’s a big deal. No one has done this before. And it’s kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be… I want to be a football player in the NFL.”
What does announcing you are gay have to do with accomplishing one’s goal to play in the NFL? While the league (and all major sports leagues) has not been the most welcoming to gay athletes, the climate is changing as society becomes more tolerant of alternative lifestyles. There’s less of a stigma than in the past, and more of an air of acceptance.
That’s of course not to say that being gay isn’t still challenging or even detrimental to one’s public life, particularly in the case of a professional athlete. Very few pro athletes have come out as gay, and generally only after retiring.
By making his announcement, Sam has taken any rumor-mongering in the locker room out of the equation. He’s being celebrated as a courageous role model, not someone to be shunned by future NFL teammates. And there can be no doubt that the team that selects him will earn plenty of good press by drafting the first openly gay NFL football player. It’s brilliant, actually.
In taking his stand, Michael Sam has gotten ahead of the news cycle, ahead of any gossip, and ahead of public opinion, and is rightly praised for it. Intentionally or not, however, he has engaged in some very astute brand management.