Reaction to Michael Sam suggests MLB is ready for its first openly gay player
After news broke Sunday night that Michael Sam, an All-America defensive lineman from the University of Missouri, announced he was gay, several anonymous NFL executives and coaches were quoted by SI.com's Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans as saying that Sam's draft stock would fall as a result. Those executives viewed Sam's sexuality as a distraction in the clubhouse and with the media, with one asking, rhetorically, "Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote 'break that barrier?'"
Fortunately, in baseball, the overwhelming answer to that question appears to be "yes." In the two days since Sam came out, players, managers and executives from a number of major league teams have said their clubs would welcome an openly gay player.
Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal got high-ranking executives of seven MLB clubs -- Theo Epstein of the Cubs, Mark Shapiro of the Indians, Frank Coonelly of the Pirates, Derrick Hall of the Diamondbacks and Ken Williams of the White Sox, and general managers John Mozeliak of the Cardinals and Jon Daniels of the Rangers -- to speak on the record. All said their teams would welcome an openly gay player.
Most simply said that a player's sexual orientation would be a non-issue in their evaluation, though a few went even further. "If the reports about his football ability and character are accurate, we would sign the baseball Michael Sam in a second and be a better organization for it," Epstein told Rosenthal.
"Are you, as a leader of your organization, prepared to provide the young man the public and private support he will need," Williams said, "along with controlling, to the extent you can, what the behavior is in the clubhouse/locker room? If the answer is yes, then you have an opportunity to use what some see as a distraction and use it as an individual and team character-building opportunity along the lines of what Branch Rickey did for Jackie Robinson."
For Hall, the matter is simple: "The Diamondbacks do not tolerate any form of discrimination and take pride in being an inclusive and accepting organization," he told Rosenthal. Arizona manager Kirk Gibson also spoke out on the matter, telling MLB.com's Steve Gilbert that, "I don't think it would be an issue in our locker room at all."
That's a particularly encouraging statement coming from Gibson, himself a former All-America wide receiver at Michigan State, given the Diamondbacks' emerging identity, inspired by Gibson, as a conservative team focused on a "gritty hard-nosed" style of play (thus positioning them as MLB's most "macho" team). It's not a surprise to see an established liberal like D-backs starter Brandon McCarthy attack arguments of those anonymous NFL executives at length on Twitter, but for a supposedly conservative team from a red state to present such a united front in support of Sam and other gay athletes suggests that these comments are more than just lip service.
"The players are ready," tweeted former major league outfielder, minor league manager and current Fox Sports 1 analyst Gabe Kapler, who last played in the majors in spring training 2011.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said virtually the same thing when he spoke with reporters on Monday. "It seems like it's the right time," he said in a story published by MLB.com. "It seems like everybody's ready for it."
Newly retired former All-Star Michael Young echoed that sentiment on ESPN Radio on Monday. "If a college program can pull it off, you'd like to think a bunch of paid professionals can do the same," said Young. "For me, it comes down to, 'Can this guy help us win? Is he a winning piece? Can he execute on the field and be a good teammate in the locker room?' I'd like to think it wouldn't be an issue at all, and all the teams I played on, I know it definitely wouldn't have been an issue."
Surely the experience of the first openly gay major leaguer won't be quite as simple as the above quotes would suggest. There are 750 active players in the major leagues at any one time plus a couple hundred on-field coaches and trainers. Mix in everyone from front office executives to clubhouse attendants, to broadcasters and other media, all of the above coming from a variety of backgrounds, and there will be bumps in the road. Indeed, MLB has no shortage of casual homophobia, be it written on Yunel Escobar's eyeblack, turned into a hashtag by Logan Morrison or more carefully considered (but no less offensive) by Torii Hunter. Indeed, less than 24 hours passed between Sam's interview on Sunday and Astros pitcher Jarred Cosart using a gay slur in a public Twitter conversation with a former minor league teammate on Monday (Cosart quickly deleted the tweet and apologized).
Of course, with such a large and diverse population of players, is it also very likely the case that baseball has, and has always had, its share of closeted gay players. Thus far just two major leaguers have come out after retirement, Glenn Burke, whose Dodgers teammates were aware of his sexuality, and Billy Bean (not the current A's GM), but hopefully Sam and the NBA's Jason Collins will inspire others.
Young told ESPN Radio that, while he was never aware of a teammate's homosexuality, "I guarantee you I've had a gay teammate. [Sam] may be the first openly gay player in the NFL, but clearly we know there have been tons in every sport—male, female, there have been tons in every sport. We just don't know about them or who they are. They're out there right now. They're out there in the NBA, in the NHL in the big leagues and in the NFL. Hopefully players are just comfortable being themselves." McCarthy echoed that final sentiment on Monday. "I think the ultimate hope is that everyone gets to be themselves," he said to reporters at D-backs camp. "It's hard enough to play professional sports and do this when you feel comfortable. I can't imagine how difficult it is if you feel like you can't be yourself and be the person you want to be. I'm just glad from [Sam's] side he just gets to be the person he wants to be."