Jason Collins made history Sunday night by becoming the first openly gay athlete to play in the NBA or any of the U.S.’s four major sports. Collins signed a 10-day contract to play with the Brooklyn Nets but the veteran’s goal is to secure a long-term contract. Michael Sam, the NFL prospect from the University of Missouri, bravely came out as gay earlier this month and saw his draft stock fall. The reactions to both Collins and Sam highlight the differences between the NBA and the NFL.
Teammate Paul Pierce, who also played with Collins’ last year for the Boston Celtics, was supportive of the openly gay athlete, saying after Sunday’s game that a player’s sexuality does not matter. It is about being part of a team and caring for each other.
Likewise, Nets’ guard Deron Williams reiterated that Collins is just another ball player. Williams said that when Collins came out of the closet last year, maybe the outside perception changed, but it was not a big deal in the locker room.
Meanwhile stars like Kobe Bryant, whose Los Angeles Lakers were defeated by the Nets on Sunday, and Golden State Warriors’ President Rick Welt, who himself was the league’s first openly gay executive, expressed not only their support, but their praise of Collins. Even Michael Sam joined in, tweeting, “Congratulations to my friend @jasoncollins34 – excited to see you do work out there #Brooklyn.”
Unfortunately, Sam’s coming out has not been received within the NFL with the same acceptance as Collins, thus highlighting the difference between the NBA and the NFL. Sam, who was the Co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year and was expected to be a mid-round draft pick, has an unknown future.
SI.com spoke with eight NFL executives and coaches who said that there would be a significant drop in Sam’s draft stock. Organizations do not want to deal with the publicity circus that comes with an openly gay football player. There is also the fear that the locker room culture is not ready to deal with an openly gay player.
None of the executives, coaches, or commentators speaking on the issue has condemned Sam’s sexuality, but there is little support. Despite reports that Sam came out to his Missouri team prior to last season and that out of the 32 NFL teams, only a few did not know Sam was gay, coming out publicly was not considered a smart move, at least financially. Quotes from team officials show that teams expect, above all else, Sam will be a distraction.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has come out in support of Sam. Goodell’s brother, Michael Goodell, is gay and told TMZ that Sam is a hero to the gay community. He added that NFL owners are businessmen above all else, not homophobes.
Of course, the draft is still ahead and Sam’s future unknown. On Monday, a story came out that Republican lobbyist Jack Burkman is drafting a bill that would ban gay athletes from playing in the NFL. Burkman believes the NFL has no morals and he is taking it upon himself to define morality for the league. At a time when gay athletes are considered a distraction and Arizona has passed legislation that would allow businesses to deny gays service due to religious reasons, Collins and Sam are pioneers in the sports community. Yet the difference in acceptance in the NBA and NFL of Collins and Sam highlights how far our country has left to go.
By David Tulis