As brands go, the National Football League hasn’t exactly been a leader when it comes to the acceptance of gay athletes. Despite a Diversity Mission Statement that includes the expressed objective of “creat[ing] a culturally progressive and socially reflective organization that represents, supports and celebrates diversity at all levels,” the NFL historically has taken a “Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell” stance when it comes to supporting gay players.
It is within this culture of machismo and alpha-dog hierarchy that allows (and, perhaps, even fosters) an environment where bullying players based on their real or perceived sexual orientation can persist, and where gay players typically choose to remain in the closet until long after their professional careers have ended.
Michael Sam’s recent decision to preemptively come out as a gay man prior to the 2014 NFL Draft poses some interesting challenges for a league that’s still dealing with fallout from the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin harassment situation at the Miami Dolphins. Sam’s public disclosure also offers some interesting opportunities, not only for the NFL and whatever team ultimately selects him, but also for fans and for marketers.
Pro athletes establish their brands early in their careers, often as rookies and, now, increasingly when they are in college (or even in high school). Along with professional sports franchises, sponsors and marketers are paying attention, too, seeking out athletes who are at the top of their games. Like most athletes, Sam likely would prefer to be known for what he does on the field rather than what he does off the field, and his bona fides alone position him as an up-and-coming athlete to watch, regardless of sexual orientation.
The controversy that has surrounded Sam potentially becoming the first openly gay, active player in NFL history speaks less about the playing abilities of the former University of Missouri defensive lineman and Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year and more about the degrees of tolerance that we’ve reached as a society.
Sam is widely projected to be a mid-round value pick during the draft, and his selection gives the NFL and its franchises a chance to retool its image into a progressive, more modern institution, and help to dispel the homophobic stereotype that has tarnished the league. It would be a right step forward. If Sam fails to be tapped, then the NFL would have a lot of explaining to do. To wit, eight of the last nine SEC Defensive Players of the Year were picked within the first few rounds of the NFL Draft.
For sponsors and marketers, who can sometimes be just as—if not more—risk adverse as NFL suits, time will tell if Sam turns into a marketable sports star. But savvy marketers may benefit from aligning themselves early with a talented athlete like Sam, who clearly has more to offer than just being gay. For fans, the true test will be how Sam ultimately performs in the big leagues.
If Sam establishes a winning career in the NFL, whom he chooses to love on his own time may turn out to be the non-issue that it is, and fans and sponsors will follow. After all, everyone loves a winner. But even if Sam’s NFL career falters or if he only achieves a mid-level of success, his brand as a sports pioneer will endure. Whether other brands choose to align themselves with Sam, then, tells more about the brands than about the player.