COMMENTARY | The news of the Michael Sam's announcement spread quickly across social media, though maybe not with the all-consuming ferocity of last year's Manti Te'o fake-girlfriend revelation. Much of the fuel from the Te'o hoax was provided by rumors that he was gay.
Sam, named by the Associated Press as the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, stepped past any rumor and innuendo on Sunday. In an interview with ESPN's "Outside the Lines," he declared a fact that his University of Missouri teammates and coaches have been aware of since last summer: "I am an openly proud, gay man."
By so doing, Michael Sam sets himself up to be the first active NFL player and, really, the first American professional athlete of note to be openly gay. Coming out at all was a huge step, but doing so just two weeks prior to the all-important NFL Scouting Combine was incredibly brave.
It's probably a very smart move as well. NFL scouts know what kind of bubble gum a kid chews, and how he likes his eggs cooked. Surely they would have heard whispers about Sam by now. By making the announcement about his sexuality, Michael Sam can be himself and be honest when faced with the relentless questions from NFL execs and scouts.
The combine is one thing, but the rigors of playing in the NFL are quite another. And in a market like Chicago, where scrutiny from both fans and media is notoriously intense, would a pioneer like Sam be able to survive?
I believe that he can, despite the inevitable bigotry and small-mindedness that he has surely already been exposed to. After all, it's the City of Broad Shoulders, not Cold Shoulders. And when it comes to the Chicago Bears, the fans will love you if you help the team.
It's certainly not going to be easy for Sam to be the gay equivalent of Jackie Robinson, but below are a few reasons he could find success in Chicago.
The Bears Need D
As I mentioned earlier: if you can play, Bears fans will embrace you. Brandon Marshall was perceived to be a trouble-maker and a head case from his days in Denver and Miami, but his growth both on and off the field has made him one of Chicago's most popular athletes in short order.
After watching the Bears' vaunted D shredded like wet toilet paper time and again, fans are hungry for improvement. The pass rush was a particularly sore spot, as the Monsters of the Midway tallied only 31 sacks, worst in the NFL.
With the imminent departure of Julius Peppers as a cap casualty, Sam would be able to step in and contribute right away. And with the bar having been lowered to such an extent, he's shoo-in to out-perform last year's DEs.
Michael Sam wouldn't have come out if he didn't believe he could handle the ensuing media uproar. And isn't that what you want in a star athlete? Not a meek, mild-mannered soul who's willing to play the wallflower and let others step up.
While it's certainly unfair to compare the men and their situations, I'm reminded of Richard Sherman's now-infamous rant at the conclusion of the NFC title game. He wasn't afraid to stake his claim and to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that came in its wake.
In a much nobler fashion, Michael Sam took arms against a sea of troubles in the hope that by opposing, he could end them. He's not only confident in his abilities on the football field, but in his identity as a man, as a person. And that's what it takes to be successful, both in life and sports.
Weight off his Shoulders
Have you ever had a secret that you tried to keep, one that would impact all those around you? You can lock it securely away in the darkest corner of your mind, but it's still there. And it has the potential to leak out, slowly, poisoning your thoughts and even your actions.
Well, Michael Sam is now free from that mental burden. I can only imagine how anxious he was when he decided to come out to his teammates at Mizzou, but that revelation helped to propel him to a banner year.
In fact, the Tigers, who were picked to finish in the lower half of the SEC, ended the season with a 12-2 record, a Cotton Bowl victory, and the #5 ranking in the season's final AP Poll. It's reasonable to believe that he could have a similar impact with the Bears, a team whose stellar offense was only held back by a weak D.
By coming out now, Sam will have plenty of time to let the media storm blow over. Sure, things are going to kick back up once training camps start, then again when the NFL season begins in earnest. Just think of the incessant coverage ESPN gave to Tim Tebow's camp with the New York Jets. Bourbonnais would be crawling with credentialed guests.
Of course, this all hinges on Sam actually being available to the Bears in the upcoming draft in May. I wrote earlier about several players the Bears will be targeting with the 14th pick. While his teammate, Kony Ealy, may be an early first-rounder, Sam is projected to go near the end of the first. If some execs' trepidation keeps Sam on the board when the Bears choose at 51, they could do much worse than to snag him.
Michael Sam coming out is a big deal. But it won't be too long before it stops being so, both for Sam himself and for the inevitable parade of players across all sports who will follow his lead. And there's no better place for that to start than Soldier Field.
Evan Altman is a freelance sportswriter with a wealth of trivial pop culture knowledge. He grew up in Northwest Indiana, where the Bears reign supreme. While he now lives in the heart of Colts country, you can hear his kids singing "Bear Down, Chicago Bears" every gameday.
Nothing better to do? You can follow Evan on Twitter: @DEvanAltman.
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