Why Michael Sam’s future may be tougher than we think

February 14, 2014

University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam stands to make history as the first openly gay athlete in the National Football League. The league, sports media, and armchair commentators are now scrambling to predict how the All American’s disclosure of his sexual orientation may affect his future team members.

Though the public response to Sam’s announcement has been overwhelmingly positive, social psychology and organizational behavior research suggest he may have a struggle ahead. His success or failure in the NFL will largely depend on the leadership of his prospective team.

Sam’s Mizzou family supported him as an openly gay player, and he had an odds-defying season. But he began his career with the Tigers as a closeted gay man. That distinction is key. Anti-gay attitudes decrease when individuals have close gay friends, University of California, Davis psychologist Gregory Herek has found. Compared to other stigmatized groups, gay men and women have the advantage of concealing their stigmatized identity in new relationships — coming out once they’ve established trust. Because Sam’s sexual orientation will be known before he ever signs to a team, this opportunity to “win hearts, then change minds” may be lost.

Second, research on “implicit cognition” — the study of rapid and automatic psychological processes — has shown that most of us hold biases we aren’t aware of, and which can often contradict attitudes we express. Even when we hold strong values about fairness, studies have shown, these implicit biases reduce our friendliness to minority group members, decrease our ratings of minority service employees, and even affect our willingness to invite minority candidates for job interviews.

While we may want to treat others equally, these subconscious biases may still win out in the moment, because they influence the more spontaneous, visceral and emotional aspects of our decisions. Biases are stubborn things, even when we’re motivated to overcome them. Unfortunately, the NFL appears to have plenty of players unwilling to try — as demonstrated by Chris Culliver’s infamous anti-gay rant following last year’s Super Bowl.

To complicate matters, our environment can help to confirm or contradict our implicit attitudes, leading us to either act on them or work to override them. In my own research with colleagues Scott Reynolds and Katherine Decelles, we found that subtle cues — like brief statements by chief executive officers — combined with participants’ implicit beliefs to produce unethical behavior.

In a business simulation we conducted, we found that when people held implicitly positive attitudes about business and the message from the CEO stated, “We do what it takes to get ahead,” they were 33 times more likely to falsify an insurance claim than those who didn’t hold such a positive belief, or those whose CEO said, “We value doing the right thing.”

Our participants’ more mindful beliefs about business ethics had no effect on their behavior, suggesting they were generally unaware how their instinctive, automatic beliefs influence their behavior. If we’re to believe allegations that Minnesota Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer made frequent homophobic comments, much of what NFL players hear on a daily basis would reinforce the implicit biases they already hold.

But despite the rhetoric about a culture of hyper-masculinity, machismo in the locker room, or squeamishness about showers, we have proof that good leadership and political will can accomplish a lot. Just five years ago, I heard frequent arguments about the incompatibility of military culture and openly gay service while working as an ethics professor at West Point during the repeal of “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.” The repeal later rolled out without a hitch, in large part because Army leadership emphasized their core values of respect and integrity while enforcing a zero-tolerance policy on discrimination.

The military reminded its members that mistreating gay colleagues would oppose what they stood for. To the best of my knowledge, military members continue to shower.

The NFL and the owners and coaches of Sam’s prospective team have an opportunity for meaningful change through strong and consistent leadership. The NFL already has an anti-discrimination policy regarding sexual orientation. Now it must prove that it is more than just window dressing or an attempt to appease the players’ union.

At the team level, owners and coaches must be willing to give teeth to their policies. It’s one thing to penalize a lesser member for violating a team’s values, but disciplining a star player to protect a third-round draft pick puts potential wins and millions of dollars at stake. The Miami Dolphins’ decision to ignore (and possibly cover up) offensive lineman Richie Incognito’s repeated bullying of Jonathan Martin shows that such depth of integrity may be absent in many teams.

We cannot predict whether Sam’s presence in the NFL will have a positive impact on his team. If it doesn’t, it may be due largely to self-fulfilling beliefs on the part of the team’s coaching staff and ownership. The NFL should regard this as a missed opportunity to exercise strong leadership — rather than hiding behind the dysfunctions of its culture.


PHOTO (TOP): Missouri Tigers defensive lineman Michael Sam (52) reacts after a play during the second half against the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the 2014 Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, January 3, 2014. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

PHOTO (INSERT): NBA basketball player Jason Collins speaks after being presented with the Courage Award, at the annual Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network Respect Awards gala in New York, May 20, 2013. REUTERS/Adam Hunger 


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Who cares! Should he come across as a reasonable individual and if he can contribute to the team, he will do fine with his teammates and the public. If comes across as an activist, promoting some gay-centric agenda, then he will be ignored.

The notoriety of someone “coming out” appears to be more interesting to those in the media than the general population. In fact, it’s getting tedious. Give it a rest and move on. No story here.

If he is good enough to make the team, he will. If not, the media will fill reams of newsprint and video condemning the team and coaches.

If he wants to be treated like anyone else, then it should be acknowledged that he may not be good enough to make the team. He will be one of 1,000–and the majority will not make the cut.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

Comments from RSS are spot on. It has become to easy to say in a country of 330 million and as diverse as the US Government has made this one, that everyone is for the subject the reporter or others advocate because of silence from the majority. In another article today, President Obama says all Americans share California’s misfortune with a epic drought. Then the Olympics start in Sochi and the media declares all Americans welcome the Olympics and time to drop what they are doing and tune in. I haven’t watched any of it and never have like the Olympics. I guess I could be declared anti-American or a Olympic racist.
It reminds one of the child in school who takes the arrowhead he found at Grandma’s and tells his mother everyone in school liked it when in fact only his class saw it. RSS is right, it has gotten to be tedious.

Posted by Vuenbelvue | Report as abusive

If the guy plays well, who cares. The snide and discriminatory comments will come out if he falters. This is not a negative, it’s human nature. Football, like other sports is intended to be merit-driven when it comes to individual achievement. If you gain visibility by means other than your performance, then fail to perform, the consequences are brutal. I understand Mr. Sam’s wanting to be honest and get ahead of the innuendo that would have followed him into the NFL, but a later ‘coming out’ may have served him better.

Posted by wildbiker | Report as abusive

Mr. Sam might be picked up by a Great Coach like Seattle Seahawks Pete Carroll who just wants his players to be the best and socially conscious. Time for some new thinking in professional sports management and reporting.

Posted by njglea | Report as abusive

@Nyglea That is true. But you also have to acknowledge that Pete Carroll’s final decision will be made on the contribution any player delivers to the team. No coach, regardless of his political or social motivations, is going to bet his career and that of his staff on a social agenda. They are paid to win games and championships. That’s why they keep score and post win-loss records.

As stated above, sports personifies a merit-based system. When you have 3,000 players each year, including 1,000 rookies, trying to make the cut, trust me a social agenda is the least of their concerns.

Those who are quick to question whether that is wrong are typically not the one betting their job.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

Of course he’s got HELL ahead of him! What do you think those guys in the showers are going to think knowing this guy is gay. They certainly aren’t going to feel comfortable knowing this guy is excited by men… It’s going to lead to problems for him for sure!

Posted by llanderos | Report as abusive

wildbiker… Who cares you say? The guys in the locker room and showers with him care! I can guarantee you that!

Posted by llanderos | Report as abusive