It would be easy to compare Michael Sam, the University of Missouri All-American football player who came out as gay on Sunday, with Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier.
So, we will.
The National Football League team that drafts the defensive lineman has a chance to gather the historical glory that is now attributed to the Brooklyn Dodgers, who ended decades of racial discrimination when they installed Robinson at first base in 1947.
The parallels are somewhat obvious. There were many in baseball who believed that black players would disrupt team harmony and would not be accepted by the other players, just as there are those today who cite the macho atmosphere in football.
Truth be told, there were some white players back in 1947 who told management they refused to play with Robinson. Already today, some NFL players have stated how uncomfortable they would be sharing a locker room with an openly gay player.
But the Robinson-Sam situations are not entirely analogous.
For one thing, all Jackie Robinson had to do was look around the field to see that he was the only African American there. It won’t be the same for Sam. There have always been gay players in the NFL, but Sam, assuming he is drafted in May, will be the first with the courage to openly state his sexual identity.
Another difference is that Dodgers President and General Manager Branch Rickey had the luxury of choosing the player who would desegregate major league baseball. Robinson, who had experienced racial prejudice all his life, was also an outstanding athlete who would go on to a Hall of Fame career.
Sam, although he was the co-defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, is projected on talent to be the 17th defensive end selected in the upcoming draft. That would place him in the third-to-fifth round. At 6-feet-2, 260 pounds, he is what pro football scouts refer to as a “tweener,” too small to be an effective defensive lineman in the pros, and not fast or agile enough to be a linebacker.
No matter where Sam winds up in the draft or if he joins a team as an undrafted free agent, he knows what he might be in for.
“I understand how big this is,” he said in an interview on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” program Sunday. “It’s a big deal. No one has done this before. And it’s kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be ... I want to be a football player in the NFL.”
Sam said he told his Missouri teammates before last season that he was gay and they “rallied around me and supported me.”
His new teammates in the NFL, whose locker rooms have been among the last bastions of intolerance and ignorance in our culture, should certainly do the same.