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Michael Sam a test of NFL's acceptance of gay rights

Missouri Tigers defensive lineman Michael Sam (52) celebrates

Missouri Tigers defensive lineman Michael Sam (52) celebrates a sack in the first half of a game against the Florida Gators at Faurot Field in Columbia, Mo., on Oct. 19, 2013. Credit: MCT / Shane Keyser

What is most dramatic about NFL prospect Michael Sam's decision to announce he is gay, according to sports sociologists, is his timing and his sport.

The country has experienced a widespread societal change toward sexual orientation in recent years, but the world of professional male team sports remained one of the last frontiers of yesteryear.

But Sam's decision to come out three months before the NFL draft puts the former Missouri defensive end in a position to be a symbol of change in the sport.

"Football has always been sort of this macho heterosexual warrior mentality -- the gladiator -- and a gay man challenges everything football has stood for in the United States," said Duke anthropologist Orin Starn, who studies sports and society. "Sports has been behind the rest of society with gay and lesbian rights, and I think it's a sign of just what a titanic shift we've seen just in the last few years that now even sports is being dragged along with the tide of the change."

USC sociology professor Michael Messner agreed. "It was not long ago that if a guy wanted to be seen as an athlete, he had to be also seen as heterosexual," he said. "We should not overstate the extent that this has suddenly reversed itself."

Former NBA player Jason Collins announced after last season that he is gay, but he is unemployed this season after 13 years in the league. So the world of male team sports technically still is waiting for its first active gay athlete. That adds more intrigue to Sam's announcement.

The SEC co-defensive player of the year, Sam has been widely viewed as a potential third- or fourth-round pick in the May draft. Will teams back away from him now because of his sexual orientation?

"The Michael Sam story is really dramatic because it really puts the onus of tolerance on the NFL now," Starn said. "It's clear to everyone that he's a draftable prospect, that he's coming off playing for this fabulous Missouri team, so if he's not drafted and he doesn't enter the NFL, that's really going to speak poorly of the NFL and its teams and its general managers and its players."

Experts do not believe Sam will face too many problems of acceptance among his new teammates, citing national polls that show that younger people are more accepting of gays and lesbians than older people are.

Pat Griffin, a retired professor of social justice at UMass-Amherst who does LGBT advocacy work with colleges, described Sam's announcement as "an example of the generation shift that I see where I work with the college athletes and then work with the coaches. The athletes are way ahead of the coaches and the athletic administrators on this issue."

Sam said he told his teammates before this season, and they supported him. But the NFL offers a different challenge. A Sports Illustrated story Monday quoted eight NFL team executives who said Sam's sexual orientation will negatively affect his path.

Presented with that story's finding, Griffin said, "I believe that is just more evidence that they represent the old generation and sort of what 'has been' as opposed to what these young athletes coming into professional sports are bringing to the table, sort of challenging their elders to get with the program."

Ultimately, the issue should come down to Sam's abilities on a football field.

Michael Kimmel, a Stony Brook sociology professor who has studied masculinity, said, "Increasingly, the acceptance of gay people in the workplace -- and let's face it, the NFL is a workplace also -- happens when we ask the question: Can they do their job? That's the only question worth asking."

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