Sports & Equality Column 1 – September 2014 – Michael Sam

You can read the Gay Star News version of the article here:

http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/nfl-being-homophobic-its-treatment-michael-sam030914

Is the NFL Being Homophobic In It’s Treatment of Michael Sam?

Chris Morgan gives a unique insight into the challenges that confront Michael Sam as he faces the prospect of St Louis Rams first regular season NFL game on 7th September – Starting without him!

Early predictions were for Michael Sam to be drafted in the 3rd or 4th round of the NFL Draft during the close season. As time wore on Michael would have become more nervous about whether he would be drafted at all and who he would end up playing for. As history now states he was drafted in the seventh round of the NFL Draft.

It would only be human for Michael to have doubted himself and his ability at this point in time. I remember that I waited six years to qualify for my first British Championship final and then make my World Championship debut in that same season back in 2004. As a gay sportsman you do question at times if you are doing the right thing and if you have the ability to succeed in your chosen sport?

In some ways Michael Sam is history repeating itself because the Rams franchise were the first US Football franchise to sign a contract with a black player. They also signed Kenny Washington in 1946 when they were based in Los Angeles, so it is quite fitting that they would also be the first NFL Team to sign an openly gay player some 68 years later.

So, imagine the shock and horror this week after taking the huge step of signing the first gay player in NFL History, the Rams have suddenly decided to cut him from their regular season roster. Early opinion has suggested that the NFL was not ready for the press attention that he was bringing, whilst others have questioned his ability.

The general reaction to Michael Sam coming out as an openly gay sportsman has been tremendous with congratulations from President Obama and encouragement from the likes of Dave Kopay who was the first NFL Player to come out as gay after his playing career had ended. Michael has also appeared on the front of Sport Illustrated and has already received the prestigious Arthur Ashe Award for courage.

It is that C Word that will support and underpin Michael over the next few months and the early stages of his career, especially in the situation that Michael now finds himself. We all know that Michael didn’t win SEC Defensive Player of the Year Award by accident and he must keep faith in his abilities and believe that an opportunity will break for him.

I already had suspected that his peers would react in a very similar way to how mine reacted when I came out in my sport 16 years ago. Behind closed doors I knew some will ridicule him, some will ignore him, some will try to intimidate him and amongst all of this his friends and supporters will rally around him and back him.

As an openly gay elite athlete I have faced many setbacks in my own career both within my sport and in regards to sponsorship. I’m certain that this setback will strengthen Michael’s resolve to succeed, should another NFL franchise come in for him and to offer him the chance that he deserves.

If and when that chance does comes with another franchise? Michael Sam is certainly going to be tested in his first season both mentally and physically. He will not only need to show up, he will have to prove he’s not only got the physical and mental ability, but also he has to be an asset to the team. As an openly gay player in his first season he will have to be faultless!

There will undoubtedly be players in the NFL that he will meet this season that will test his nerve and courage on the field of play. We would all be naive to believe that every player in the NFL is going to welcome Michael with open arms.

I can relate to the pressure of being an openly gay athlete in elite sports and my long experience tells me that he will need to focus on his performance and being better than them at every opportunity. The difference in the NFL of course is that there is physical contact and there will be players that will literally be looking to physically put him out of the game.

Make no mistake Michael Sam has the physical attributes to perform in the NFL else St Louis Rams would not even have drafted him in the first place.  The big question is going to be whether he will handle the mental strain of the intense heat of battle and should another franchise come in for him we are certainly going to find out.

During my early career I used the fact there were so few gay athletes to build a winning – siege mentality. I realised that it was important that an openly gay man was winning world medals in elite sport. Michael needs to use the fact he is gay to his advantage and use the sense of occasion, history and significance of his career to fuel his fire and desire.

When I started out in my career as an openly gay athlete my inspiration came from those who had come out after their playing careers had ended, such as Greg Louganis, Dave Kopay, Esera Tuaolo and John Ameachi – plus also the out legendry female tennis players such as Martina Navratilova and Billy Jean King.

These were the role models that paved the way for the next generation of openly gay athletes such as Matthew Mitcham, Gareth Thomas and more recently Tom Daley, Ian Thorpe, Casey Stoney and Nicola Adams. When the going gets tough, Michael needs to remember that he is not alone on his journey and that he has the support of his LGBTI peers who are also operating in elite sport.

Support from within gay community has been hugely valuable throughout my own career and in particular the support of the Gay Games movement and The Federation of Games, the place where I first started my Powerlifting career. They have helped to keep me motivated and moving forward, especially when times have been tough.

This weekend is round one of the regular NFL Season with St Louis Rams meeting Minnasota Vikings where it all really would have started for Michael Sam. Only time will tell if he is judged fairly not as a gay man, but as the NFL football player that he is and gets the chance he deserves. The statistics don’t lie in elite sports and let’s hope another NFL franchise comes in soon enough for him to prove that he is the man!

Chris Morgan is a seven time World Champion in Powerlifting and a Global Ambassador for the Federation of Gay Games. His News Blog can be read at www.chunkymuscle.com

The next Gay Games are scheduled to take place in Paris in 2018. For more information about the Gay Games visit www.gaygames.com  and www.paris2018.com