As the executive director of Athlete Ally and an activist focused on ending homophobia and transphobia in sports, I have been encouraged by all the progress in athletics in the last few years. Jason Collins, Brittney Griner and Robbie Rogers all came out as openly gay athletes, and now Michael Sam will likely be the first openly gay player in the NFL — all with proud lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender leaders and allies in the athletic community helping to make it possible.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this time in our sports history marks the end of the beginning. As our athletic culture progresses, fewer barriers will have to be broken as more athletes come forward and live as their true selves; acceptance of LGBT people is becoming an integral part in the education of rookie players across many major sports.
As the news of Michael Sam’s coming out broke, the support and encouragement MU and its alumni have given him has been a true inspiration. As a nation, we watched Mizzou lead the way by transforming the Missouri “M” on the snowy football turf into “SAM,” by blocking Westboro Baptist Church’s picketing of campus with a human wall and by giving him a standing ovation at a recent basketball game.
All this undoubtedly signifies to other young athletes that in a supportive environment you can be true to yourself and play sports without fear. This is the climate I envisioned when Pat Griffin and I co-authored the NCAA Inclusion Guide “Champions of Respect.” Mizzou has proven itself a leader in this regard, but this sentiment isn’t present on every campus.
If every school were like MU, Sam wouldn’t be on the cusp of making history; he’d simply be another representative of true equality. Role models like Sam are incredibly important and we need more of them. With no openly gay football players in the NFL, and only a few players who have come out after their careers, the road for Sam will certainly be one less traveled. The same issue persists in every mainstream sport, and not just for men. Female athletes often feel pressured to stay silent or closeted based on years of gender inequality. Stereotypes that affect LGBT athletes often affect women as well. That’s why brave individuals like Michael are so important.
As Sam continues his march to the NFL at the upcoming scouting combine, he will be continually reminded of all that he is taking on. He might hear the recent comments from a New York Giants player asserting a gay teammate will make the locker room uncomfortable, be asked about his draft stock falling or maybe even about how all of this has impacted his dating life. For all the courage he has shown, his time under the microscope, outside the tight-knit community in Columbia and far away from any barricades Tigers fans can form to protect him, has just begun. Brendon Ayanbadejo, Athlete Ally board member and Super Bowl champion, spearheaded a campaign with Athlete Ally to support Sam. Many other players and personnel around the league have said he will be welcome in their locker rooms. We want to make sure that’s the case.
Sam’s decision to live his fully realized truth will save lives. The incredible support he has received from the MU community only fortifies the idea that hope for equality is thriving in the United States. Everyone deserves to feel comfortable being who they are, and Sam’s legacy will have long-lasting positive effects at MU and across the country.
At Athlete Ally, we educate and empower the athletic community to stand against homophobia. In order to be an ally to the athlete community, you have to do something, and Tigers fans have taken action in spades. Now that you are mobilized, it is important to see the time left on the clock — not only for Michael Sam, but for all the athletes around the country. We work with ambassadors in states from California to Texas, from Florida to Pennsylvania and many, many more. And we’d love to work with some of you incredible students at MU. Help us promote inclusion in sports by signing the Athlete Ally pledge, engaging with us on social networks and continuing to lead the way in promoting LGBT acceptance in sports and beyond.
— Hudson Taylor, Columbia University Wrestling Coach
Founder and Executive Director of Athlete Ally, email@example.com