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Schultz: Michael Sam’s bigger truth

Published: Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 5:30 a.m. CST

If you’ve ever worried that revealing a deeply held secret could be your undoing – isn’t that true of most of us at some point in our lives? – there is hope to be found in the unfolding story of Michael Sam.

Sam is the University of Missouri All-American defensive lineman and NFL prospect who has publicly revealed what his college teammates already knew: He is gay.

So far, response has been mostly positive, including from the NFL, which released this statement Sunday:

“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”

There were a few exceptions, which were widely reported, of course. Sports Illustrated, for example, granted anonymity to a handful of NFL executives and coaches so they could feel free to cast their own homophobia as a league-wide plague.

Football is a “man’s man” game, you understand. A 6-foot-2, 260-pound powerhouse of a man who doesn’t want to have sex with women could chemically imbalance these manly men. Or something like that.

Then there was New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, whose bad timing made him the punchline of too many blog posts to count.

In an interview with NFL Network shortly before Sam’s announcement, Vilma went on and on about how he couldn’t handle a gay guy’s noticing him in the locker room.

“Imagine if he’s the guy next to me and, you know, I get undressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me,” he said. “How am I supposed to respond?”

What’s it like, I wonder, to think you’re irresistible to pretty much everybody? I want his ego for just one day.

This is my favorite follow-up headline, via Yahoo News, after Sam’s announcement: “Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma clarifies homophobic views.”

“It was a poor illustration of the example I was trying to give on the context, so I do apologize for that,” Vilma told The Times-Picayune. “I was trying to explain that whenever you have change into something that’s been set in stone for so long, something that’s been going for so long, that change always comes with a little resistance.”

Give that agent a raise.

I mention these public missteps because it serves no one to pretend that Sam’s announcement wasn’t just as much of an earthquake in the NFL as it would be in a lot of families. Including Sam’s. As The New York Times reported, his own father publicly expressed his discomfort with his son’s revelation.

I’m sorry this is true, but telling others that you’re gay is still often a big deal. I hope to outlive that singular fact, but to ignore it is to disrespect what so many in the LGBT community have endured from people who were supposed to love them.

Now, this is where we get to the hope part.

In his own words, 24-year-old Michael Sam made clear why he was going public.

“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” he told ESPN. “I just want to own my truth.”

It’s the rare adult who hears that and doesn’t feel the tug of recognition. We are only as strong as our biggest secret, the saying goes, but fear sure can make us cling to a lesser version of ourselves. Sam offers a glimpse into what happens when you finally let it go.

L’Damian Washington, a football player and close friend of Sam’s, described Sam’s transformation for The New York Times:

“I think mostly why Mike had such a great season this year is that he could be himself. He got that big boulder off his back. Like, finally. I think it was a huge relief. He could be himself and not always be hiding something from everybody.”

I am reminded of a Nova Knutson quotation my daughter, then a teenager, wrote on a small piece of paper and stuck to her dresser mirror:

“Hint: the cage is not locked.”

• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “...and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. Reach her at con.schultz@yahoo.com.

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