This essay is one of more than 20 nominations for SI's 2014 Sportsman of the Year. You can see all of this year's nominees here.
A man can show character not just in what he does, but in what he chooses not to do. We all know that in February, Michael Sam did what no NFL player or prospective draftee had ever done before by publicly declaring that he is gay. Becoming the first player to find the courage to do that would have made him worthy of being named Sportsman of the Year alone. But Sam showed an even greater dignity in the paths he chose not to take, the words he chose not to speak.
He could have pointed out that it probably wasn’t just a coincidence that right after he came out, he seemed to go from being considered no worse than a middle-round draft choice to a marginal prospect who had no NFL position. But he didn’t.
He could have demanded an apology from ESPN after the network’s absurd preseason report on his locker room showering habits and his teammates’ reaction to them. But he didn’t do that either.
He could have lashed out at the way the celebratory kiss he shared with his boyfriend after getting the news that the St. Louis Rams had drafted him was analyzed and judged. Should the TV cameras have shown it? Was it too long? But he let the criticisms and comments pass.
He could have given a much harsher response to coach-turned-analyst Tony Dungy after Dungy was quoted as saying he wouldn’t have drafted Sam because of the distractions a gay player would cause. But Sam chose the high road. "Thank God he wasn't the St. Louis Rams coach," he said. "I have a lot of respect for coach Dungy and like everyone in America, everyone is entitled to their own opinions." He could have turned Dungy’s comments into a much bigger story if he had wanted to. But he didn’t.
Sam could have played it all so differently. He could have tried to tap into our sympathies, presented himself as a victim struggling against the homophobia of the league and of segments of the public. But he repeatedly said he wanted to be considered a football player first, and he backed that up by simply playing football. He never complained about things he had every right to complain about.
By choosing not to do anything except play, Sam showed a toughness that can’t be measured by tackles or sacks. He left the social commentary to others, knowing that he would lend power to the LGBT struggle for equality just by putting on his pads. Even though he hasn’t made it into a regular season NFL game yet -- he was cut by the Rams in the preseason and then released from the Cowboys practice squad – his mere presence in the league has made a difference.
In his acceptance speech after winning the Arthur Ashe Courage award at the ESPYs in July, Sam told a story of speaking with a woman who was considering suicide rather than coming out to her loved ones. “When we spoke she told me that she would never consider hurting herself again and that somehow my example would help,” he said. “To anyone out there, especially young people, feeling like they don’t fit in and will never be accepted, please know this: great things can happen if you have the courage to be yourself.”
Sam proved that this year with everything he said and did. And everything he did not.