Michael Sam's brave decision to come out as gay before the NFL draft has been exactly the story that the NFL desperately needs.
Now that the Superbowl has ended and the focus is no longer on the league's stars playing national games, coverage of the NFL was going to drift back to ongoing storylines that make the league look absolutely horrible. There's the ugly bullying case in Miami, where the league's investigator has just released his final report. There's the murder trial of star player Aaron Hernandez. But even worse than all of these is the steady drumbeat of medical news about concussions, brain damage, and the terrible toll on former players. Retired stars have killed themselves with bullets to the heart and requested that their brains be autopsied. As shocking as that is, the concussion story isn't merely a scandal. It suggests that football itself might be fundamentally unsafe, that even routine play causes long-term neurological damage. That story line has the potential to kill organized football, because it makes the case that organized football deserves to die.
Right in the nick of time comes poised, photogenic Michael Sam, talented enough to get drafted despite his orientation, brave enough to come out before draft day even if it might mean being taken in a later round with less guaranteed money. And he, knowing the stakes for other gay players and for his own career, has played the media superbly. He could not have managed this announcement better.
That he did is a stroke of enormous luck for the lords of the NFL. Suddenly, in the dead of off-season winter, they have a major feel-good story. Even if a few anonymous team executives mouthed some code-word reservations about having an out gay athlete on their teams, the story has largely played out as a great step forward for the NFL. Instead of stories about crippling brain damage, the league gets stories about advances in social justice.
It's worth noting that the first team owner to announce that gay players like Sam are welcome (in principle) on his team was Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, whose former tight end is about to go on trial for murder. (Kraft was careful to say that he left the actual football decisions to his head coach, and that Sam would only be drafted by the Patriots for football reasons.) I don't doubt that Bob Kraft had genuinely noble reasons for making a public stand other team owners weren't brave enough to make. It does show good character on his part. But this is also a good moment for Kraft's organization to show off all the good character they can muster.
What's most amazing is that we have reached the point where an athlete coming out of the closet is no longer treated as a scandal, but as an uplifting relief from scandals. It's a good day when a gay athlete making a stand is the good news that a pro sports league is looking for. That's what make me most optimistic for the future of gay rights in our country. So bravo to Michael Sam for his bold step forward, two cheers for the NFL's ability to recognize good PR, and -- in honor of the day -- hooray for love.