Michael Sam earned all the headlines this weekend with his self assured performance at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, when he told reporters he’d rather be know as “Michael Sam, football player, not Michael Sam, gay football player” while at the same time acknowledging the historic importance of his attempt to earn a spot in the NFL as the sport’s first openly gay athlete.
Meanwhile, Jason Collins, in the twilight of a respectable NBA career, was quietly negotiating a contract with the Brooklyn Nets and is expected to suit up for tonight’s game. When the ink on his 11-day contract dries, he will become the first pro team sport player in any of the four major American sports–baseball, basketball, football or hockey. The distinction of being the first pro team sports player is actually already owned by Robbie Rogers, a soccer player with the LA Galaxy.
Collins, who at age 35 is considered on the downside of his career, has never been a star player, playing 12 NBA seasons, six of which were with the Nets when they played in New Jersey. He had sat out most of this season as teams shied away from him both because of declining skills and, some charge, because executives feared the distraction of media coverage of the historic feat. At over 7 feet tall, with a decent touch around the hoop, he filled a position of need for the surging Nets. The team was reportedly impressed with Collins attitude and conditioning despite having not played professionally since last season.
For his part, Sam handled questions about the famously hostile NFL locker room at the combine with a maturity that belies his 22 years.
“I’m not afraid of going into that environment,” he told a throng of reporters. “I know how to handle myself. I know how to communicate with my teammates.”
What if he is gay baited?
“If someone wants to call me a name, I’ll have a conversation with him,” he said. “And hopefully that will be the end of that.”
Standing 6’3 and sporting 250 pounds of muscle, we don’t doubt it at all.
While it may not seem this way to Sam and Collins–striving to begin and prolong careers in the heat of the moment–they are likely to be remembered more for their courage in coming out in a hostile environment and less for the accomplishments on the football field or basketball court.
In the end, doing both well with grace and aplomb may be the greatest testament to these brave men who are making the world safer for athletes everywhere.