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.

Sam is moving America—and black America—one step further on a freedom trajectory that encompasses black and LGBT freedom, an issue that’s examined in a new film, The New Black, about the fight of black gays and lesbians for acceptance in their own communities.


He’s Helping to Redefine Manhood

And by coming out now, in his words, to “own my truth,” Sam's impact will resonate beyond just a milestone in sports history.

Too often, as black men—gay or straight—we’re defined by ourselves, and, frequently, others in confining ways that we internalize, to the point that we can’t live out our own truths or maximize our own potential. And there are those who predict that by coming out, Sam is hurting his NFL draft value and jeopardizing potentially lucrative endorsement deals. But how can it not be better for him to live his truth as a fifth-round pick, instead of someone else’s as a third-rounder with a national ad campaign?


And by challenging the antiquated notion of masculinity—that there might be something incompatible with being both gay and an elite competitor in football, the most physical and aggressive of our national sports obsessions—Sam is breaking down another type of barrier.

Ultimately, his coming out is a small step toward black men being better able to rethink the diversity within our collective, and to appreciate that there’s more than one way for us to be fathers, brothers, husbands, partners, mentors and competitors than the roles that are often assigned to us. And for those of us who hope that Sam advances the conversation among black men, we shouldn’t just ask whether he’ll fit in within pro football or pop culture in general. We should also be asking what our culture will do to fit in with him.

It’s something that novelist Kiese Laymon wrote about powerfully for ESPN a few years ago, when he reflected on his college basketball days and how, back then, he measured forward “progress” by how much his openly gay teammate and friend “was really like us”—just another one of the guys—never questioning why that process of assimilation went in only one direction.


It’s something I’ve asked myself, knowing that I’ve written in support of same-sex marriage and gone drinking at gay bars with gay friends, but that at other times I’ve casually laughed off “no homo” or “pause” one-liners with straight friends, even if I knew how pointless and privileged that was.

It’s why I feel that Michael Sam—a guy 20 years my junior—has accomplished something for me and for every other black man in America. By coming out publicly as a gay man right as he’s about to enter the NFL draft, he’s set an example as a black man who is embracing his own individuality.

A black man, in other words, who’s embracing being free.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.