Written by Ian Servantes (@ian_servantes)
Last night Mizzou defensive end and NFL prospect Michael Sam made an announcement that will help advance both the LGBTQ community and his (likely) future employer. ESPN reported that Columbia’s Campus Bar and Grill erupted into applause when the news broke that Sam might become the first openly gay player in the NFL, but that report is slightly inaccurate. Big 12 was the site of the joyous reaction. Any student or alumnus of the University of Missouri knows the bar’s real name isn’t the one on the outside of the building.
During my three-and-a-half years at Mizzou, none of our football seasons have been as exciting as the one that ended last month. Back when I was a freshman we upset No. 1 Oklahoma on homecoming weekend with College Gameday in town. While the OU game offered a greater high point, the season as a whole was nothing compared to 2013. We weren’t ranked in the 2010 preseason polls, but we were still expected to be respectable. That team had Blaine Gabbert coming off a solid sophomore year, Aldon Smith with Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year and freshman All-American awards under his belt, and 27 votes in the AP preseason poll. This team was predicted by many experts to finish last in the SEC East.
The entire campus rallied behind our overachievers—including Michael Sam, whose 11.5 sacks, up from 3.5 in 2012, earned him the titles Mizzou MVP, SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, and unanimous All-American. But now we have something even bigger to unify us.
Although many fans have since called out the experts for those predictions, anyone who says they expected a 12 wins and a major bowl victory is full of shit. We had just gotten rocked in our first SEC season the year before, both in play and recruiting. Competing with heavyweights like Alabama and Georgia, and even fellow newbie Texas A&M, seemed years down the line. I decided not to buy season tickets for the first time since enrolling.
Then we started winning. Our first win of any significance came against Indiana, a team that was unranked but had one of the nation’s most efficient quarterbacks and highest scoring offenses. A few weeks later, fresh off of entering the AP poll at No. 25, we beat 7th-ranked Georgia in Athens and payed the Dawgs back for this. We beat three more ranked SEC opponents on our way to an 11-win regular season.
Of course, there were a few missteps. We lost to South Carolina in our homecoming game, but it was as encouraging as losses can get (I usually hate when people say that). The Gamecocks needed three long, fourth-quarter touchdown drives just to tie the game; Maty Mauk was making his second college start; and the losing play was a 24-yard field goal attempt in double overtime that began with the holder placing the ball laces in and ended by bouncing off the left upright. The SEC Championship loss to Auburn that cost us a spot in the National Championship game was relatively easy to swallow because we faced a running game that couldn’t have been contained by a bank vault inside the Berlin Wall.
The Cotton Bowl capped off an incredible ride. In true Mizzou fashion, the game nearly caused the University Hospital to fill up with heart attack victims. Despite three quarters of the offense brutally underperforming, Mizzou finally stepped up and realized it was involved in a competitive event when Oklahoma State made a fourth-quarter push. We finished 5th in the AP’s final poll and 8th in the BCS standings (there’s a reason why we’re not letting the computers decide things anymore). The term “underdog” is thrown around liberally, but we were fit for the title. The entire campus rallied behind our overachievers—including Michael Sam, whose 11.5 sacks, up from 3.5 in 2012, earned him the titles Mizzou MVP, SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, and unanimous All-American. But now we have something even bigger to unify us.
The country’s reaction to Michael Sam’s announcement has been overwhelmingly positive, but the United States and the sporting world are still far from complete acceptance of the LGBTQ community. Reports of anonymous NFL personnel disapproving of Sam’s coming out quickly followed the great news, and the Westboro Baptist Church tweeted of plans to protest at Mizzou Saturday.
Students reacted to that last bit of news by planning a counter-protest. The “One Wall, One Mizzou. #StandWithSam” Facebook event page already has more than 2,000 confirmed attendees.
I’m proud of my peers for embracing the opportunity to publicly support Sam and LGBTQ rights on a large scale come Saturday. However, I hope that’s not where it ends. Just like one openly gay NFL athlete isn’t enough to eradicate the sports’ homophobia, any single act of collective behavior isn’t going to change our society. It shouldn’t have taken an athlete coming out to get this many people at my school publicly behind the cause, but the catalyst is less important than the actions that I hope will follow.
I’m proud of the football team for supporting him and not leaking his sexuality after he came out during a team meeting before the season. I’m proud that those who either suspected Sam might be gay or knew of his relationship with another man before that team meeting didn’t let that prevent Sam from being one of the team’s most popular players. Some players went to gay bars with him, and one joined Sam at a pride parade in St. Louis. That’s refreshing in a sport that’s often criticized for how it treats the LGBTQ community.
More than anything, I’m proud of Sam for having the courage to come out before he even begins his NFL career. He’s coming off a year in which he terrorized every offensive he faced. Sam’s impressive stats and trifecta of awards gave him high draft prospects. In all likelihood, his announcement will cause his stock to drop, but that’s far less important than it is to have an openly gay player in the NFL. It’ll help to dispel the insane notion that masculinity and homosexuality are mutually exclusive.
Regardless of how long it takes, the inevitable W for the LGBTQ community, the one we’ll have a hard time believing was ever contested, will be better than that victory against Oklahoma, better than it would have been to beat Auburn, and better than it would have been to win a National Championship.