NFL + America

At the NFL Combine, college athletes are taken through a serious of tests in which they attempt to
impress their future potential employers well enough to be drafted (read: hired). The process is a
relatively grueling one. Prospective players’ physical and mental attributes are analyzed in an
increasingly thorough and rigorous manner. Bench press numbers, 40 yard sprints, vertical leaps, and
even hand sizes are measured, recorded and ranked among the pool of potential candidates. A player’s
acumen is assessed with the Wonderlic Test; the NFL’s specialized IQ test. Background investigations
akin to receiving a governmental security clearance are also implemented in order to examine a players’
psychological health and social habits. With millions of dollars on the line, owners leave no stone
unturned.
Preparing for the combine is an industry in itself. Weight lifting trainers, nutritionists, track coaches,
public relation coaches and others are hired to strengthen, shape and mold these young men into
packages worth paying for. It is not without merit to state that the Combine can, and does, make and
break careers. And while playing for a top tier university can gradually ease a player into the national
spotlight, the initial shock and pressure can sometimes be too much for young men that can squat
upwards of 500 lbs to bear. The stakes are high and the process can be exhausting. Minor distractions
can be magnified in an environment where laser like focus is crucial for a draft worthy performance.
When tenths of a second in the 40 yard dash can be worth millions, potential disruptions are avoided
like the plague. Which makes Michael Sam an interesting case.
Michael Sam is the reigning Co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year. He is also gay. His public proclamation
on February 9 sparked the inevitable firestorm. The main question the media seemed to ask is whether
or not the NFL is ready for an openly gay player. Just like any work environment, there will be people
who do not get along due to reasons ranging from the petty to the philosophical. Conflict is a natural
result of daily human interaction; especially in a work environment where differing viewpoints clash as
solutions are hashed out. The fact that the NFL’s thrives on the highly induced testosterone culture
could possibly make Mr. Sam’s transition into the league more difficult than others. But he is not the
only man who has gone through the trials and tribulations of simply being the low man on the totem
pole. And the extreme physical nature of the sport should not mean that people presuppose that all
players are by default stereotypical, uneducated jocks who are all incapable of progressive thinking. Nor
should it be assumed that, in the entire history of the NFL that players haven’t already dealt with a gay
player in the locker room. The only difference is that this particular player has publicly acknowledge his
homosexuality.
Returning to the question of whether or not the NFL is ready for an openly gay player. This is an
interesting way to frame a subject in which the NFL has already stated policy on the matter. Michael
Sam cannot be banned from the league based on sexual preference. It is league policy, and cannot be
refuted. Nor would the NFL want to deal with the blowback that would assuredly follow if they did
decide to ban him. It would be a political debacle for the league in a country that is increasingly leaning
towards acceptance of gay marriage.
So if the question of whether or not the NFL is ready is moot, who is the question really being addressed
to? The answer is: the public. It appears that the crux of the matter is whether or not the public, and
more specifically NFL fans, are ready to accept an openly gay player. By directing the question to the
league, media outlets are indirectly forcing people to think about both Mr. Sam’s sexual preference as well as the idea of cheering for him on the field. It is much like the show Modern Family in the sense that
a viewer is first introduced to and then familiarized with a social situation they would not otherwise
think to address critically. In the case of the sitcom, viewers are acquainted with a gay couple, adoption
and divorce; once traditionally taboo subjects.
Sports have always been about more the entertainment that occurs between the lines. Fans and casual
observers alike have proven to be interested in the dramas that unfold after the whistle blows.
Endorsements, social media, and paparazzi have created 24/7 celebrities on par with A-List actors in
Hollywood. SportsCenter’s emergence as a media powerhouse reinforces this. A seemingly greater
portion of air time is spent talking about player’s lives rather than their in game performance. Think
back to this time last year, when Manti Te’o’s relationship with a nonexistent girl was the story of the off
season. He and Tim Tebow were arguably the most talked about players in the league, and not because
of their prowess on the field.
Football has always been an activity where both players and fans can release their aggression during
game day. It has also evolved into a forum where social issues are dissected, assessed and discussed. In
the past year, fake girlfriends (Te’o), religion (Tebow) bullying (Richie Incognito), and racism (Riley
Cooper) are just a few of the issues that have been dealt with. Michael Sam’s admission is no different.
He has forced a large group of people to think and discuss openly about a contentious issue. Debate is
healthy.
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