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The Changing Landscape Of Professional Sports

Yes, there's a mascot named "Bully".
Yes, there's a mascot named "Bully".
Charlie Crowhurst

Is the NFL ready for Michael Sam? That's an irrelevant question because they're going to have to be. The notion that change happens when society is ready overlooks the important truth that it is protest and pioneers that change timelines.

Undoubtedly it would have been harder for Jackie Robinson 20 years earlier and easier 20 years later, but part of what made it easier, 20 years later, to be an African-American baseball player, was Jackie Robinson himself. By saying, "Ready or not, here I come (out)," Sam will force the NFL to speed up its acceptance of gay football players. All that is left to see is "From where to where, and how fast?"

In a way, though, the hot-button issue of sexual orientation is arguably only the second-biggest social issue facing NFL locker rooms this off-season. What are the odds of that? Jonathan Martin broke a locker room code arguably as compelling as the promise to present as heterosexual when he spoke up against bullying and refused to let his tormentors go Incognito.

Cries of "He's teasing me!" are common on 3rd grade playgrounds but not in football locker rooms. Martin's actions, which have now resulted in the firings of the Miami Dolphins' offensive line coach and trainer, suggested that sports locker rooms might actually be accountable for the hazing, hate speech and bullying that previously have been not so much "protected against" as "normal".

Will Martin be a trailblazer as well, perhaps one who stands up for a higher percentage of the population than Sam? In playgrounds, workplaces, and locker rooms across America, bullying is rampant thanks to an important accomplice: Silence. Few codes are as widespread as the "don't snitch" mantra that bullies rely on in order to prosper. Martin broke that code and did so in a football locker room of all places, and now his tormentor is being put in his place while those who joined in or stood idly by are out of a job.

The tormentor, Richie Incognito, is now a free agent. With all the questions swirling around whether Sam's draft stock has fallen, how much, and will he be shunned by many, most, or all teams, wouldn't it be fantastic if it were Incognito who was shunned? What if Sam plays in the NFL next year, not because he's gay but because he's good at tackling, while Incognito watches from the sidelines because he's the guy with baggage no one wants to take on? Now that, to put it in football terms, would be "forward progress".

This brings us to baseball, whose locker rooms might be a skosh less testosterony (the San Francisco treat?) than those of their football counterparts, but compared to the average workplace? Probably closer to the NFL than to Pottery Barn. (Disclaimer: I've never worked at Pottery Barn, or shopped there, so I can't really say what their workplace is like. Come to think of it, I don't even know if they're still in business.)

Will Michael Sam's emergence on the NFL -- assuming, of course, that he is in fact drafted -- lead to a similar announcement by an active major league baseball player? I don't mean similar as in an MLB player announcing that Michael Sam is gay, I mean...well, you know what I mean.

As unexpected as Sam's announcement was (to everyone except his teammates and coaches, who already knew and supported him), the pulse around major professional sports lately has not been whether an athlete will come out but when. Will MLB remain a "don't ask, don't tell" circuit for years after Sam breaks the "out barrier" or will multiple players come out to where no one individual is especially scrutinized? There is, after all, security in numbers. Except when that number is zero; then we call it bullying.

Will baseball locker rooms change as a result of two pioneers, each speaking his truth and in the process revealing the truth about the interaction between real people and real locker rooms? When that which has festered underground is brought to the surface, your timeline has been established for you. Ready or not, here it comes.