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Michael Sam's historic, nonchalant coming out

Sociologists and pollsters in the United States have noted that attitudes toward homosexuality have changed more rapidly than on any other major topic in the history of social science. The chart of overall change in the populace is stunning enough, and the generational change is even more dramatic (see below). But now, when I teach on this topic, I won’t bother using charts anymore. I’m just going to show a photograph of Michael Sam.

In case you missed it on Sunday, a college football player came out as gay. Michael Sam is a defensive lineman at the University of Missouri. He’s from the Southeastern Conference, which is both the best one and also at the heart of the Bible Belt. His team was highly ranked. Oh, and he was the SEC defensive player of the year. He will, by all accounts, be drafted into the NFL, where he will begin his career as the first openly gay player.

And yet the story behind the story is even more indicative of social change: the bigger story is that, when he told his teammates last year, absolutely nothing happened. Some already knew, some expressed relief. Under their shoulder pads, the team's response was a big shrug.

He had already confided in a few close friends, Sam recalled, and had dated a fellow athlete who was not a football player -- so while coming out to his Mizzou teammates last year was a key moment, it came almost as an afterthought, during preseason training camp.

"Coaches just wanted to know a little about ourselves, our majors, where we're from, and something that no one knows about you," Sam said. "And I used that opportunity just to tell them that I was gay. And their reaction was like, 'Michael Sam finally told us.' "

Asked what that moment felt like, Sam said, "I was kind of scared, even though they already knew. Just to see their reaction was awesome. They supported me from Day One. I couldn't have better teammates. ... I'm telling you what: I wouldn't have the strength to do this today if I didn't know how much support they'd given me this past semester."

He did not ask them to keep his revelation a secret.

What happened next? They went on to a banner season and victory in the Cotton Bowl. There continued to be no story from the locker room, and in a way, that’s the story. “An openly gay player at Missouri turned out to be a bonfire in want of a spark. His teammates nodded, and they moved on. There really was nothing to see here,” writes college football analyst Ivan Maisel.

Forty years ago, the same university denied recognition to a student group that proposed to be a forum about homosexuality. Today it's ready to send a gay football star to the NFL.

So we don’t need anymore polls or charts. The story—and the non-story—of Michael Sam says it all.

About the Author

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University, author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard.



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It's a reason to rejoice, particularly that his team was so supportive.

Jon Stewart showed a clip of New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma saying he wouldn't want a gay teammate looking at him in the shower.  Now it appears Vilma is retracting / backpedaling.

This is indeed amazing, though I am a bit surprised it is as low as this poll shows among Boomers and GenX.  The I've seen it higher in other polls, though I know enough about polling to know that at times the question can drive the answer.  At the end of the day, though, the Church's position on this is a losing one.  And by continuing to hold tight to it, it almost guarantees that it will lose a generation.  As my daughter corrected me when I said something about gay marriage, mellenials just call it marriage.  That a football player can come out and nobody really cares...well we'll see for sure come draft day, but my guess is nobody will care. 

I was deeply moved by the many posistive statements issued by athletes in response to this.

["Nonchalant coming out"] ???  Really?  From Michael Sam's point of view, even with all the support from family and friends, this announcement to the world is anything but nonchalant.

It is a great moment in time, perhaps a historic landmark.  A lot will depend if the homophobic and self-loathing NFL can transcend their prejudices and bigotry and have a Jackie Robinson moment.  We'll see.

The real triumphant will come when all the gay men who are presently playing major professional sports start coming out of the closet.  It's way passed time.  

Let's see if Michael Sam's courage can shake some thunder from the sky - to borrow a phrase from that testosterone-obsessed football factory that plays under the watchful golden gaze of Notre Dame.


BTW:  Notice the gaping differences between the way Michael Sam has courageously embraced his personal truth and the fumbling, embarrassed pageant we witnessed last year from Manti Te'o and ND! 

The thing is, Jim Jenkins, what he did took courage, then again it didn't take courage.  Being the first anything is always difficult.  You don't know what the reaction will be.  On the other hand, 70 % of the people in your age cohort, and even those a fair bit older than you find homosexuality to be "no big deal." My guess is if 70% support gay mariage, even more are fine with homosexuality in general.  A smallnumber might for religious or other reasons oppose the marriage part.  And while support for gay marriage is far from universal in Missouri, where it is was at 37% in 2012, it has made major gains over the past decade.  In 2004 when the State's constitutional Amendment was approved defining marriage as between a man and a woman, it has increased by 10 percent to 37% in favor.  Just this past November, the Governor came out in support.  Even in Missouri, in 2012 polls, there was support among those under 40 for  marriage equality, and even in Missouri, opponents made up than a majority (46.17%).  

It's interesting to see that support for same sex marriage seen as a proxy for support for being openly gay.  I don't doubt there is a strong correlation.  But can one oppose the first and support the other?

Hmm.   Why haven't the Xers changed at all?  I can't help but wonder if this is true.  And why have the Silents changed proportionately more than the Boomers?  Is that possible?

There is a largely unsupportable arrogance on the part of way too many heterosexual males that says that most if not all gay males …. and heterosexual females …. find them to be unavoidable lust objects. 

Frank Bruni debases that nonsensical attitude quite in the Times:

Ann Oliver,

I wonder if a lot of it is a function of changing demographics rather than changing opinions. The two generations with the largest shifts are the two with the most dramatic shifts in median birth year. Millenials are adding people who were born more recently and therefore more likely to support gay marriage while the silent generation is losing people disproportionately born earlier and there less likely to support gay marriage.

Ryan:  don't you also think that a sea-change in adherence to "religious orthodoxy" in the younger generations also has something to do with their attitudes toward homosexuality in general and marriage equality in particular?

The percentage of "nones" in the under 30 crowd is increasing dramatically.  "One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling."  (

Jim McCrea,

Certainly. 90% of young non-Christians and 80% of young Christians see Christianity as "anti-homosexual." Combining this with 70% of young people supporting same-sex marriage creates a lot of tension. Some will interpret the Gospel in a different way from older generations, but others will decide that a Gospel that creates the Christianity that we have isn't useful.

Jim Pauwels,

There are certainly people on the Far Left who support people being openly gay but oppose gay marriage because they oppose marriage in general. However, I'm not sure if someone who supports marriage could oppose it for gays and lesbians while truly supporting them in a broader sense. Advocating celibacy assumes that to be gay is to have a calling to celibacy. Supporting relationships with no legal recognition creates massive hardships and contradicts supporting marriage for heterosexuals. Supporting civil unions acknowledges the need for legal protections while labeling their relationships as inferior.

Ryan ==

Yes, that would explain the Silents.  

Given how different the Boomers are from the Silents,  I would also have expected the Boomers to be more liberal.  Or are they reverting to conservatism in their old age?  Didn't Carl Sandburg say "I never was a liberal when I was young because I didn't want to be a conservative in my old age".

Some might argue that there are much worse sins than being a gay football player in the SEC.

Certainly gay people have the same right as heterosexual people to the opportunity to become rich and brain damaged. And I guess Iran, as a sovereign country, has the right to build a nuclear reactor and get their Chernobyl/Fukushima lottery ticket.

I come to the discussion of Michael Sam's coming out as a gay footballer a bit late. I think it is an indication of the readership of Commonweal that the commentary has, on the whole, been fairly "ho-hum". But some commentators have edged close to what I think is at the heart  (or ought to be) of discussion of homosexuality. That is, it is perfectly natural for some men and women, boys and girls, to have a same-sex attraction. It is part of who and what they are. They are a minority but they are just as much rational human beings as the rest of us who have an opposite-sex attraction. Their being naturally homosexual de-facto challenges the catholic church's teaching on sexual morality, which is based on Augustinian and Thomistic teachings on the nature of man and society. Despite Gaudium et Spes conceding that the natural law subsists under the flux of ideas and customs that characterises the history of mankind, and indeed supports the evolution of new insights into what it means to be human, there is iteration that the natural law is immutable. It seems to me church's pre-occupation with legality, even the legality of the natural law, blinds it to the priority its founder, Jesus Christ, placed on love and compassion.

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