We now know what Michael Sam’s teammates have long known: The All-American defensive lineman from the University of Missouri is gay, and could very well become the first ever openly gay football player in the NFL.
Much has and will be written about the historical impact of Sam’s coming out, but a quietly remarkable aspect of Sam’s story is this: For at least an entire college football season, Sam’s teammates knew his secret, and they not only accepted it, they helped him keep it.
Sam has said that he came out to his team before the 2013 season, during a team meeting in which each player was asked to tell a secret about himself. “I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their heads — like, finally, he came out,” Sam told the New York Times. His team, and the coaches, kept their star player’s secret, even as the team faced building media attention as they competed for a national title.
But even in a generation notorious for social media oversharing and in a sport not known for its tolerance, no one let Sam’s secret slip. Not even Sam's dad found out.
“I think it’s tremendous, in this day and age, that they could do that without anything leaking,” said Leif Smith, a clinical and sports psychologist who works with athletes at Ohio State University.
It’s also possible that his teammates didn’t think it was that big of a deal, Smith and other sports psychologists said. “I do think it’s more of a ho-hum issue for this generation,” Smith said. “It was a big issue to address it, but once they started playing football, they could care less.”
According to the day’s stereotype of a macho-bro culture like college football, an admission like Sam’s could lead to ostracization, or a Miami Dolphins-esque case of bullying. And indeed, some unnamed NFL insiders have reportedly already responded to Sam’s admission by saying things like an openly gay player would “chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”
But sports psychologists who work with college athletes say that they see this generation being more tolerant when it comes to the matter of their peers’ sexual orientation. Seventy percent of millennials — defined here as those born after 1980 — said in a 2013 Pew Research Center survey that they support gay marriage, and that percentage is rapidly increasing, up from 51 percent in 2003.
Sam's teammates said his sexuality was no big deal in the lockerroom, and many of them joined a chorus of public support that included first lady Michelle Obama.
Sam is a gifted athlete, named in his last year at Mizzou to the College Football All-America Team, which means his team has even fewer reasons to care about his personal life.
“I think the bottom line for most players is — if you have a teammate that can help you win, it doesn’t matter,” said John Murray, a clinical and sports psychologist in Palm Beach, Fla., who has worked with NFL athletes.
If Sam did explicitly ask his teammates not to share his sexual orientation, the team’s secret-sharing may even have strengthened their cohesion as a group.
“We know that when people choose to confide secrets with us, that can draw us closer together, because that disclosure signals trust and intimacy in itself,” said Clayton Critcher, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has researched the psychology of secret-keeping.
In ideal circumstances, a team may function much like a family, experts say “Teams are going to protect their own,” Murray said.
“The family will kind of circle the wagons, and protect their secret," he said. "Because a family very well represents that concept of a unit that needs to be able to be cohesive to be able to perform well, to be able to win."