Dash

02.10.14

Will Today’s Closeted NFL Stars Let Michael Sam Be the First Out Player?

With 1,700 players, it’s virtually certain gay men are on the gridiron. There’s good reason one of them may not want to follow a rookie as the league’s first out member.

Some NFL players sign contracts with incentive clauses for becoming an All-Pro, or rushing for 1,000 yards, or winning a Super Bowl. The handfuls of stars who accomplish all three stand to earn millions of dollars in extra pay, not including additional endorsement opportunities down the line. But only one person can earn residuals from an act that can only be accomplished once. In some ways, “pioneer” is the most lucrative accolade of all.

Major American team sports will have only one first truly active and openly gay player among their ranks. That person will not only be a cultural icon, but a can’t-miss commercial success. The United States’ gay and lesbian community represents an $800 billion market of consumers who on the whole have more disposable income than the average consumer, and are more willing to spend it attending sports events. They will financially support their long-awaited trailblazer far past his playing days.

At the moment, it appears a rookie will cross the threshold. NFL prospect Michael Sam’s announcement on Sunday that he is gay promises to set into motion one watershed moment after another. If all goes as planned, the former Missouri player will go in the middle of May’s NFL Draft and be playing Sunday afternoons this fall. Perhaps he will learn how to play outside linebacker after being a defensive end and develop into the same kind of star he was in college, where last season he earned SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors. Or maybe, he’ll be just average. Either way, he will have shaken American sports culture to its core.

Sam’s revelation isn’t like those of other athletes in other sports. This is an entirely different scale. Early last year, Major League Soccer’s Robbie Rogers came out as the first active openly gay player in American team sports history. A stir briefly ensued, and then 99 percent of Americans didn’t care enough to watch him play his sport. Last April, journeyman NBA player Jason Collins came out to much more fanfare, but his season had already ended—and so too, it seems, had his career. The 35-year-old Collins hasn’t played in an NBA game since his announcement, which has significantly diminished his platform.

When it comes to platforms that best reach the American audience, playing in the NFL is like winning a gold medal every Sunday. Don’t expect the first gay NFL player to openly advocate for gay rights in his first season—simply playing will be enough—but do expect him to take advantage of some of the endorsement deals to come his way. Nike would be a logical candidate here. Last summer, the WNBA’s Brittney Griner became the first openly gay athlete to sign with the shoe company, only days after it had hosted the first ever LGBT Sports Summit.

Other kinds of revenue will follow. There will be speeches, and at least one book deal, just as there was for Robbie Rogers. The book may not come until the end of Sam’s career, but when it does there will be intense interest in what actually goes on in his NFL locker room. On the surface, it doesn’t appear there will be much of an assimilation problem based on the Twitter outpouring of support from players. But some past and present players like Hines Ward and Chris Culliver have said they do not think an openly gay player would be welcome in an NFL locker room. Moreover, eight anonymous NFL executives and coaches told SI.com they feel Sam’s revelation hurt his draft stock. They believe the franchise drafting him faces a perpetually distracting media frenzy.

Rumors have been swirling since last spring that an accomplished NFL player was on the cusp of coming out.

Let’s say they’re right. Sam goes in, say, the seventh and not the fifth round. And he lands on a team where a couple veteran teammates think nothing of laughingly referring to him as that “rookie faggot” before loading him down with shoulder pads to carry off a field during training camp. And that could well be just the start of it. Expect opposing crowds to spew much worse.

These are the kind of challenges the first gay NFL player will likely have to clench his teeth and push through. But this is also the kind of struggle that turns ordinary folks into American heroes whose stories reverberate through generations. Jackie Robinson would not be as revered by practically all Americans today had he not faced substantial resistance to his 1947 entry into the major leagues. Brendon Ayanbadejo, a former All-Pro and LGBT advocate, has likened Sam’s “ground-breaking voyage” to “those of Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks—extraordinary moments in the push for equality.”

Michael Sam is no longer just auditioning for an NFL roster spot; he’s also angling for a monumental place in American history. How will current, closeted NFL players feel about this in the coming months? Will the Kleig lights now shining on Sam move them to one-up him as the first?

Rumors have been swirling since last spring that an accomplished NFL player was on the cusp of coming out. There was a photo of ex-Pro Bowler Kerry Rhodes carrying a man by a pool, bare chested and beaming. There were photos that many believe strongly suggest the relationship between superstar Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a male personal assistant was amorous. Both Rhodes and Rodgers denied they are gay. They may be telling the truth, but it would be folly to assume all of the roughly 1,700 NFL players are straight—not when some estimates peg at least 5% of American men as homosexual.

Chances are high there is a star-caliber closeted NFL player watching Sam’s story unfold with a mixture of admiration and jealously. Gay athletes have just as big of egos as straight ones, and NFL veterans risk a lot to earn and keep jobs in their industry. They often show rookies their place, whether through hazing rituals, or agreeing to CBA terms which have ensured players in the first years of their career earn less than their elders no matter how good they are. Now that Sam has shown that on the whole society is warm to the idea of a gay NFL player, it doesn’t make sense that someone of Aaron Rodgers’s stature would voluntarily relinquish a form of immortality to some unproven pup.

Unprecedented cross-cultural appeal as the first openly gay—and actually good—player in America’s top sport is a valuable possession. It is bouncing Michael Sam’s way, but remains very much in play.