With the football pre-season in full swing, many eyes are on Michael Sam, the defensive end for the St. Louis Rams who in February became the first out gay player to be drafted by the NFL.
Though the Rams have lost their first two pre-season games (they face the Cleveland Browns Saturday), buzz is strong for their prospects this year. ESPN analysts said they could emerge as a “sleeper” for the NFC West this year, they’re “primed to explode” and this fall is, in an ironic choice of words, “looking very much like their coming-out party.” Their first regular season game is Sept. 7 when they play the Minnesota Vikings at Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis at noon. It will be televised on Fox.
With Sam in the mix, the team is garnering attention beyond the usual sphere of fans. Almost everyone agrees, regardless of how Sam or the Rams do this year, his presence is a big deal.
Bruce Hobson, a St. Louis attorney and Rams fan, says the February news resonated strongly with him since he, like Sam, competed for the University of Missouri (Hobson swam).
“I was just sort of shocked,” said Hobson, who’s gay. “I remember I was in the airport waiting for a connecting flight and watching the ESPN alert on my iPad and I was like, ‘Oh wait a minute, that’s the guy from University of Missouri.’ I thought this was really cool that he would do that. … I had played for University of Missouri in scholarship. I was not really out but not really in either, so it had even more of a resonance for me having been a University of Missouri gay athlete.”
Hobson said buzz about Sam has been strong in St. Louis and that although the Cardinals dominate the local sports discussion there, Sam’s presence is high in the public consciousness.
“There was lots of, ‘Oh, isn’t this wonderful,’ and people talking who don’t have much interest in football suddenly were interested,” he said.
A.J. Bockelman, executive director of PROMO, Missouri’s statewide LGBT rights group, agreed.
“There’s an incredible amount of buzz coalescing around the idea that St. Louis has its first gay celebrity in Michael Sam,” Bockelman said. “When he made his debut in a practice game, it was very well received and from what I understand, whenever he walked on the field, the entire crowd shouted his name so I think what that shows is that for St. Louis, we’re ready for someone like Michael Sam to be on the stage and probably bring a lot more attention. It’s a lot different than if he’d been picked up by, say New York or Los Angeles. Lots of people think of Missouri as just some place you fly over, and this will help us break down that perception.”
Matt Berger, a crisis communications consultant and football fan who lives in Washington, said Sam’s coming out is historic.
“It just felt to me like a tougher barrier than a lot of other sports,” said Berger, who’s gay. “It felt more significant to me than Jason Collins and that’s what I liked about it. Here was this guy who wasn’t just an ancillary player. He was a star. He had played on a major team, he had won defensive MVP honors. It wasn’t just a guy on the sidelines. This was somebody people could really look up to and that made a big difference for me.”
Hobson said the nature of football as a team sport adds to the magnitude of the moment.
“It’s a culture that can be very tough,” he said. “Not just the physical nature of the sport but with the ostracization factor that can occur. It’s not like swimming where you only have to rely on yourself. … You might get tackled harder, you could be seen as the weak link on the team and they could make your life hell. You might pay a price and I’m sure there are many who would say it’s not worth the risk. That’s why this is so important and a much bigger deal than, say, a women’s basketball player or somebody who comes out at the end of their career. It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, I’m gay,’ on your way out the door when you’re already established. But to do this when there’s still so much at stake in your career, when nothing’s a done deal, that’s why it’s so historic.”