College football star Michael Sam came out as gay to his teammates at the University of Missouri in the summer of 2013. The team improved from a forgettable 5-7 win-loss record in 2012 to a national title contender. Sam's teammate, Kentrell Brothers, exalted on Twitter:
Our coaches and players knew all along about this and noone said anything. Just show the amount of respect we have for our family.
— Kentrell Brothers✈✈ (@Kentrell_Mizzou) February 10, 2014
But when Sam came out as gay to the rest of the public yesterday, National Football League executives and coaches surveyed by Sports Illustrated were clear in their response: risky move. They said Sam's announcement would mark him as a man on "a lonely path", hurt his stock in the upcoming NFL Draft, and damage his chance to have a prosperous career. One executive said, "It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker and meeting room."
Sam's star is rising, and NFL executives' skies are falling. How can the league's gatekeepers be so deaf and blind to the evidence that Sam's sexual orientation does not inhibit his play or damage his team? Why can't they see Sam for what he is or read the situation correctly?
Part of the answer is, of course, the immense power of homophobia, which continues to sew injustice and insult across all sorts of workplaces and social situations. But the reaction to the NFL's would-be first out gay player is about way more than that – it's about the ways gender combines with race and class, the roles and stereotypes cast upon black men in America, and the peculiar position Michael Sam now occupies.
Sam is as a hybrid black male figure we have never seen in the pop-cultural arena built by white dominated media and entertainment corporations. He is a courageous and gracious gay black superman who rose from a poor background – his siblings have been in and out of jail, missing or dead – and is about to embark on a promising career of glorious and debilitating violence. His rise to stardom and coming-out render him both hypervisible, and, as Duke University Professor Mark Anthony Neal might suggest, "illegible". This dissonance, rather than solely homophobia, explains the insanity uttered by those in the NFL who view Sam as a liability.
Sam is not the first openly gay professional athlete, nor is he the first openly gay black male professional athlete. Sports fans are familiar with basketball players Jason Collins, who came out last year, and John Amaechi, who came out in 2007. Both carved out lengthy, if unremarkable, careers in a highly macho sport dominated by African Americans. Though they were anomalies and their announcements were courageous and shocking to many, they did not cause panic among league power brokers.
There are several reasons for this. Collins and Amaechi (who came out after he retired) were no longer especially relevant or useful to the National Basketball Association when they came out. In addition, Collins and Amaechi had certain class backgrounds, education, and mannerisms. They fit into a racist logic of respectable bourgeois black masculinity that allows for athletic supremacy so long as those who possess it behave politely and refine their ferocious black manhood.
Collins was fortunate enough to have an economically comfortable childhood in the United States, capped with a degree from Stanford University. Amaechi rose from modest means in England, but developed his skill as a public speaker and mentor while completing his education as a player at Penn State University. Their masculine potency had been softened in the American imagination by their command of middle and upper class social customs. They had long since left behind the most legible racist stereotype of black masculinity: a violent thug.