Why Michael Sam’s Coming Out Is Good for Gay—and Straight—Black Men

The football All-American is opening up the definition of manhood.

Michael Sam of the Missouri Tigers
Michael Sam of the Missouri Tigers Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Last year in the pages of The Root, I tried my best to explain “Why I Love Being a Black Man.” Read for yourself, but for me it boiled down to the complexities of embracing what it means to be a black man while embracing my own individuality, as well.

And to me, Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam is a man who has embraced that complexity.

By now you know his story: The Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year and near-lock NFL prospect gradually came out as gay to friends, teammates and, this week, to the world. He’s seen some resistance from pro football, like one executive who told Sports Illustrated, “I don’t think pro football is ready” because “it’s still a man’s-man game.”

But in a welcome sign of the times, the response has mostly been positive—from Vice President Joe Biden calling Sam an “inspiration” to Baltimore Ravens receiver Torrey Smith calling him “a man who has proudly stepped to the forefront of an ongoing and controversial topic, to say who he is and what he stands for.”

Sam came out for his own reasons, but in the process, he’s done something for the rest of us.

He’s a Role Model

Charles Barkley once famously said, “I am not a role model” as a way of explaining that pro athletes weren’t a substitute for parents providing guidance for their kids—and it’s a fair point.

But whether or not Sam calls himself a role model, he’ll be one. And if coming out at this stage of his career helps even one kid—in particular, a young black gay man, but anyone who feels isolated or “different”—be proud of who he is, then Sam has already done something significant.

He’s Following Tradition

Whether you prefer to think of Sam as the gay Jackie Robinson, the black Greg Louganis or just Michael Sam, first-team All-American, the fact that he has broken a barrier is the continuation of a tradition extending from March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin to NFL veteran and civil rights advocate Brendon Ayanbadejo. Black men have always been at the forefront of an ongoing fight for values that go beyond race or orientation. Equality is equality; rights are rights.