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Sam just the latest to tackle discrimination

At 6-foot-2, 260 pounds, Michael Sam has the strength to tear down entire walls. But history will remember him for knocking just one more sizable hole in a barrier that was already quickly crumbling of its own weight.

Sam, of course, is the University of Missouri star football player who announced this week that he is gay. As an All-American and the best defensive player in college football’s best conference, Sam in May will likely become the first openly gay player in any major American professional sport.

Reaction was mostly supportive, but not all. Rush Limbaugh bellowed that heterosexuals are “under assault” by homosexuals. Two Canadian Football League players tweeted disparaging comments. An NFL player personnel assistant anonymously told Sports Illustrated: “I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet. … At this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. … It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”

This is the wailing and gnashing of teeth that come with an anti-gay movement spiraling through its death throes. It was coincidental, but notable, that Sam’s announcement came one day after the U.S. Justice Department announced that it would treat gay married couples just like opposite-sex couples in matters of federal law. That followed the Supreme Court’s ruling last year that struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Society’s recognition of gay rights has accelerated dramatically over the past five to 10 years and that won’t stop. People are rapidly realizing that discrimination based on sexual orientation is fundamentally wrong, and it’s a matter of time before all official expressions of it are banned – a matter of time shorter than anyone would have thought several years ago.

Michael Sam’s insistence on being himself, then, is just one more chapter in a much bigger movement. Like other societal evolutions, the barricades will be chipped away bit by bit, with each episode carrying us one more step toward the inevitable.

Sam’s journey is likely to be as bumpy as others who force society to change. His draft position might drop, costing him money. A teammate or an opposing player won’t accept him. Some fans will probably yell epithets. A GM will anonymously say that the NFL is not ready for gays.

And then the NFL will adapt. Just as the military has. Just as America did with racial integration.

Just as the University of Missouri team itself did last fall. Before the season started, Sam told his teammates that he was gay. Far from disrupting the locker room, it unified it. Sam and Missouri went on to a stellar season, with the Tigers playing in the SEC championship game and the players voting for Sam as their MVP. That Sam blossomed as a player after getting the secret burden off his shoulders is, we suspect, no coincidence.

Michael Sam will not be the first gay player in the NFL. Others have come out after retirement and some on current NFL rosters are almost certainly closeted. Sam is just the first who refuses to keep pretending he’s someone he’s not.

And simply by being himself, Sam will help tear down that wall. Fighting through blocks, after all, is what he does.

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