By Clarice Pranger, Forum Editor

The stigma attached to homosexuals and “sexual deviants” in American culture is all too clear, but that stigma is magnified considerably when viewed through the specific lens of sports. An athlete cannot be taken seriously as soon as he “comes out of the closet,” as if his sexual orientation somehow affects his ability to play.

Fully aware of the hostile environment of professional sports, recent University of Missouri graduate Michael Sam has come out as gay and now stands to become the first openly gay athlete in the National Football League.

According to The New York Times, he is a standout defensive lineman who was named the Associated Press defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference and is expected to be chosen fairly early in the opening rounds of the NFL draft, but for many people outside the world of college football, this is the first they are hearing of Sam.

Even despite his impressive numbers and his team’s win-loss record of 12-2, because he has publicly acknowledged that he is gay, he will forever be known as “the gay player.” No matter how impressive his future NFL career may be, no accomplishment will ever overshadow that fact that has nothing to do with how he plays.

As if that is not enough, even his future in the NFL has been clouded to an extent. Because there is still a vocal segment of the American populace that is vehemently anti-gay, teams that wish to draft him will have to take into consideration his homosexuality.

Drafting a gay player will become a calculated risk on the part of teams and team owners, and they will find themselves hoping that how he plays will sufficiently overshadow who he is.

This, needless to say, is a sad and unacceptable state of affairs, but where there is so much uncertainty surrounding Sam, there is also a good deal of hope for positive change.

While the league has a policy that prevents discrimination based on sexual orientation, it does not have any sort of record as a beacon of acceptance because it has never had a publicly gay player. But because he decided to come out of his own accord, Sam has the opportunity to confront head-on the stigmas and prejudices that pervade the culture.

Sam is paving the way for openly gay athletes around the country who aspire to the NFL or to any other professional American sport; he has the unique opportunity to break down barriers and to dissolve notions commonly held by the American public simply by being able to play.

He can show the world -and Americans especially –that being gay is no longer a handicap in America. But his crusade need not have such a deliberate agenda.

He can set American sports on the path to acceptance simply by playing great football, and perhaps, when that day finally arrives, he will stop being the “gay football player” and start being the “great football player.”