Chris Kluwe, former punter and (up until recently) the most vocal supporter of marriage equality in the National Football League, thinks that Michael Sam is paving the way for other athletes who may be in the closet but will also face challenges in his road ahead.
"Hopefully by Mike taking this step now [it] will make it much easier in the future for other guys who come out as gay because people will know, ’Look, it doesn’t have to be a big deal. It’s just a guy who wants to play football," Kluwe told Fusion host Alicia Menendez in an interview on Monday.
The former Minnesota Vikings player also addressed whether Sam’s presence in the locker room would be a distraction and the multiple meanings behind that often used term.
“Distraction is code for, it can be code for bigotry. It can be code for 'We don’t like this so we don’t want it around,' and it can also be code for 'I don’t understand this, so I don’t want to have to deal with this'," he said.
"The thing that coaches and GMs apparently fail to realize is that NFL is the greatest reality show on television. Every season there’s a distraction. I mean, to think that just because Michael Sam is gay is going to be a distraction that breaks the NFL’s back, that’s ridiculous!"
Kluwe himself knows a thing or two about being labeled a distraction. In January 2014, he was cut by the Minnesota Vikings. In a letter published on Deadspin, the punter accused the team of targeting him for his very vocal support of marriage equality. The team, for their part, dismissed these claims, asserting that they cut Kluwe for "football reasons."
The former punter also added that Sam will face backlash within the league and that some of the responsibility to integrate Sam into the NFL fell on Rams head coach Jeff Fisher.
"There’s always going to be a couple of guys who don’t get it because the NFL is a very broad sampling of society, you have guys from very diverse backgrounds and just like in society itself, there will be people who don’t get it," Kluwe said.
"But the thing is from an institutional level, the head coach can make that very clear the first day of meetings by saying ‘Hey, this is Michael Sam. He happens to be openly gay. He’s also a good football player for this team and if you don’t like it, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.’ That’s what coaches do."
It’s worth noting that in addition to drafting the first openly gay player, the Rams were also the first team in the NFL to sign a black player (they signed two in 1946).
Unfortunately, not everyone has been as embracing of Sam’s selection as Kluwe, or, for that matter, of Sam kissing his partner on national television after being drafted. Among the displeased by what appeared to be a genuine and touching moment was recently retired running back Derrick Ward, who took to Twitter to criticize ESPN for airing the kiss.
Video produced by: Victoria Moreno, Bianca Perez, and Ignacio Torres