On February 9, 2014, Michael Sam, a defensive lineman on the University of Missouri's football team, announced that he is gay. Sam came out to his teammates last summer; some already knew and others were surprised. All of them have supported him through the process. He made an intentional decision with his agent to come out to the public now.
Michael Sam will enter the NFL draft this May and is likely to become the first openly gay player in the NFL. Over the past several years, a few male professional athletes have come out after retiring, and last spring Jason Collins of the NBA (see our lesson) came out after the season. However, there have been no publicly gay athletes in the NFL, the NBA, the NHL or Major League Baseball. So this news is significant, and some would even say groundbreaking.
Students will learn more about Michael Sam and his coming out.
Students will be able to define what coming out means and the potential negative and positive consequences of coming out.
Students will reflect on the impact Michael Sam's announcement could have on individuals and society.
Students will develop their own opinions about Michael Sam's coming out and write a persuasive essay about it.
Warm Up: Opinion Continuum
Read the following statements and have students give a thumbs-up if they agree, a thumbs-down if they disagree, and a thumbs to the side if they aren't sure or have mixed feelings about the statement. If time permits, ask a few students to explain their responses.
- It is understandable that some people hide being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
- LGBT athletes and celebrities have a responsibility to come out of the closet.
- No one should have to come out of the closet and explain their sexual orientation.
- People should never hide any aspect of their identity.
- You should only come out to people you know will accept you.
- Was it difficult or easy to decide your opinion about certain statements?
- Did any of your own or your classmates' responses surprise you?
- Did you have any new realizations while doing the activity?
Ask: Does anyone know who Michael Sam is? What happened recently that put him in the news?
Explain to students that on February 9, 2014, Michael Sam, a college football player with the University of Missouri on the verge of being drafted in the NFL "came out."
Ask students: What does "coming out" mean? With students, define "coming out" as the process in which a person first acknowledges, accepts and appreciates his or her sexual orientation or gender identity and begins to share that with others.
Ask students: Why do people sometimes call it "coming out of the closet"? What is the meaning of that metaphor?
Explain that a person who is gay might come out to one individual person, to a group of people, or more publicly to the world at large, as Michael Sam did. Explain that Michael Sam is likely to be the first openly gay player in the NFL after he is drafted in May.
Reading Activity: More About Michael Sam Coming Out
To learn more about Michael Sam and how he decided to come out, have students read the article from Sports Illustrated, Michael Sam breaks longstanding barrier by announcing he is gay. Before students read, ask: What do you think the title's reference to "longstanding barrier" means? Have the students read the article in class or for homework the night before.
After reading the article, have students talk to a partner about what they read and how they felt about it. Then have a whole class discussion by asking the following questions:
Why is this extraordinary news?
Under what circumstances would news like this no longer be considered "news" at all?
Why do you think several NFL players who planned to come out in the past decided not to?
What did the article suggest may be some reasons that the NFL will not pick Sam?
What about the "culture" of professional football may make it difficult for Sam?
Can you tell anything about Sam's personality or character from reading the article and if so, what?
In the coming weeks and months, how do you think people (fans, other players, owners, general public) will see Michael Sam?
What kind of challenges might Sam face in the NFL?
Do you think Sam's coming out will change football and society and if so, how?
Different Perspectives: Analyzing Quotes
To help students explore different perspectives, have them read aloud the following quotes by Michael Sam himself and others who have opinions about his decision to come out. After each quote is read, ask students what the quote means and what they think about it.
"I'm not afraid of who I am. I'm not afraid to tell the world who I am. I'm Michael Sam, I'm a college graduate, I'm African-American and I'm gay."
"It shouldn't matter," Sam said of his sexuality. "If I work hard, if I make plays, that's all that should matter."
"I mean, a straight person doesn't have to go in the media and tell them that they're straight, and I don't think a gay person should do that, neither. But that's the society we have to live in."
"In the coming decade or two, [an openly gay player] is going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."
Former NFL General Manager:
"That will break a tie against that player. Every time. Unless he's Superman. Why? Not that they're against gay people. It's more that some players are going to look at you upside down. Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to the Today show. A general manager is going to ask, 'Why are we going to do that to ourselves?'"
"It's not a shocking thing to me, and it won't be to our organization. You'll have old-school guys on your team saying, ‘Are you kidding, putting this guy on our team?' And you'll have other guys say, ‘Who cares? I knew two gay guys who came out in college.'"
Statement from the NFL:
"We admire Michael Sam's honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014."
Donte Stallworth—Retired NFL Receiver (via Twitter):
"If any NFL team can't ‘handle the media coverage' of drafting Sam, then your team is already a loser on the field... let me tell you why. There are a multitude of issues that can arise in the long duration of an NFL season--some on the field, some off the field. You won't have any idea what that on the field/off the field situation is until it's already upon you and the entire organization. Which means that with drafting Michael Sam, you get a jump start on controlling the "media coverage" right from the onset. If an organization is inept to the magnitude of not being able to control things with prior knowledge, how will you handle the unexpected?"
Read some of the responses on twitter from football players, other athletes, and the general public on Top Tweets: Michael Sam announces he's gay before NFL draft
Writing: Persuasive Essay
Tell students that now that they have learned more about Michael Sam and the different points of view on his announcement, it's their turn to express their opinion. What do they think about Sam's decision to come out, probably becoming the first openly gay player in the NFL? As homework, ask students to decide what their position is, and write an essay that summarizes their position and supports it with research and quotes from other reading materials (see reading resources below). The essay can be written as a letter to the editor, an editorial or a persuasive essay.
This assignment can be done for homework. The next day, have students read some of their essays aloud in class.
Closing: I Used to Think...
In a go-round, ask students to complete the following sentence about Michael Sam's coming out: "I used to think ________________________ but now I think ______________."
'The Eagle Has Landed': The Exclusive Behind-the-Scenes Story of How NFL Prospect Michael Sam Came Out
How will news that Michael Sam is gay affect his NFL draft stock?
For Gay Athletes, a Harsh Spotlight
It's Time for the NFL to Welcome a Gay Player
N.F.L. Prospect Michael Sam Proudly Says What Teammates Knew: He's Gay
Q&A with Missouri star and NFL draft prospect Michael Sam
The NFL's Big Test