"I am gay." These three simple words have little meaning separately, but collectively can be one of the most difficult statements for a person to vocalize. Add the media scrutiny of a star athlete poised to be drafted into the NFL, and you have one of the most arduous and daunting roads any athlete will travel since Jackie Robinson.
That is exactly what standout Missouri junior defensive end Michael Sam proudly declared to the world last week. That sentence sent shock waves through the sports landscape, blew up social media and will unequivocally change not only National Football League locker rooms, but professional sports as a whole.
For Sam's teammates, this is nothing new. They played all season long knowing he was gay; he revealed his sexuality in the preseason. But when Sam heard speculative murmurs about his sexuality floating around, he decided to be proactive and reveal it himself.
Projected to be a mid-round draft pick, Sam will be the first openly gay player the NFL has had, and the second openly gay professional American athlete, behind Robbie Rogers of the LA Galaxy. Another notable star that has come out recent months is NBA star Jason Collins, formerly of the Washington Wizards.
Sports mirrors society and in many ways it gives societal issues light like nothing else can. We saw it in the 1940s with Robinson and race equality. We saw it in the 1970s with women reporters being allowed in male locker rooms. We will see it soon with a proud gay man playing football in the NFL.
Whether or not the NFL is ready for an openly gay player remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: change is coming. It was almost inevitable that an NFL athlete would come out, with LGBT equality becoming more and more prevalent, and Sam will be a poster boy for the cause.
This will cast a media storm across the NFL. Teammates, coaches, opponents and Sam himself will be faced with unparalleled questions, potentially becoming a distraction to winning, something that everyone will have to be ready for. It's an issue that cannot be ignored.
It has also raised the debate of whether or not sexuality has a place in sports. But with supermodel girlfriends getting airtime during NFL broadcasts, most notably Giselle BÃ¼ndchen, the heterosexual side has had a place since the beginning. The issue now is, does the homosexual side have a place as well?
We live in an increasingly liberal society, but there is a large percentage of the population that attaches a negative stigma to being homosexual. Some countries, like Russia, have even made it illegal.
Sam will feel this wrath. He will deal with hatred. This is a battle he chose to fight, but it's one he's ready for. While he can't control that battle, Sam can control the battle in between the lines. Helping whatever team he plays for is where he needs to focus. That, as we've seen countless other times, puts the off-the-field drama to rest.