Breaking down the last barrier in sports

Brian SchaffnitBy Brian Schaffnit |

Sports have meanings that go beyond the playing field. The world just witnessed the closing ceremony at the Winter Olympics which is a celebration of the cultural melting pot that is our world with the common bond of competition at the highest level. Athletes were judged on athletic merit and not on anything else.

Here in the U.S., sports fans were witnessing the last great barrier to that same opportunity begin to be broken down by the latest member of a trailblazing group of athletes.

All-American defensive end Michael Sam could become the first openly gay athlete to play in the NFL if he appears in a game during the upcoming season. His February 22 media day appearance at the combine drew far more reporters than even those of the highest projected draft picks.

Throngs of reporters asked Sam dozens of questions, almost none of which related to his football skills. Sam is considered to be a mid to late round pick in May’s NFL Draft and is by no means a guarantee to make a roster. By contrast, Jadeveon Clowney, a possible number one overall pick that is being hailed by scouts as the best collegiate defensive player in decades, had far fewer members of the media speak with him at the combine.

The difference is glaringly obvious. Sam is drawing the attention that he is because of his public declaration of his homosexuality. Sam spoke in his interview of wanting to be viewed only as a football player and not a gay football player. Time will tell if that becomes the case, but what Sam and other openly gay athletes are doing now will have its greatest impact for the next generation of athletes.

As our country continues to embrace civil rights for the gay and transgender community, our thoughts are changing along with it. People are beginning to not fight it. This same transition is taking place on the athletic field. When Jason Collins checked in for the Brooklyn Nets against the Los Angeles Lakers on February 24, 2014, he received no reaction from the LA crowd. Collins, who came out publicly last year became the first openly gay athlete to play in the NBA and he was treated just like any other player would be. That no special reaction one way or the other happened when Collins made history is a sign of progress within the sports community towards accepting athletes for what they are and what they can do on the field and nothing else.

As we continue to move forward, and more athletes come out, crowds and teammates across America will treat them the same as they would any other athlete. The legacy of Michael Sam, Jason Collins and other gay athletes will be that they broke down the last barrier of entry to sports in this country. There will come a day where children will pursue their athletic aspirations however far they wish to take them without a second thought about how they’ll be perceived because of their sexual preferences.

Collins, Sam and others are just the latest trailblazers for equality in the sports world. When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, he did so during a tumultuous time that posed daily threats to his safety on and off the diamond. But one of Robinson’s greatest impacts came in the subsequent years after his retirement when other African-American baseball players came up to the plate and received the exact same reaction a white one would have. Ultimately, fans of teams with African American players only started to care about how many runs they drove in, and not anything else. Perhaps more importantly, their teammates prioritized those exact same things.

The greatest legacy that Michael Sam and others like him will hope to leave is similar to that of Jackie Robinson. That it’s finally time to be who you are in the specialized environment of a team locker room. Whether it’s a junior varsity outfielder or a NFL quarterback, they’ll finally be able to be judged on their athletic and personal merits. When the time comes for an elite performer to be openly gay, and he or she gets inducted to their sport’s hall of fame, it’s my hope that they won’t even mention their sexuality and instead talk about what they did on the field and how their teammates supported them throughout the entire journey.

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