Akil Patterson is a youth programs leader for Athlete Ally, a New York-based nonprofit that seeks to raise public awareness about homophobia and transphobia in sports. He was an offensive lineman for the University of Maryland football team from 2001 to 2003.
I know what it feels like to be Michael Sam: young, black and gay, with hopes of being a high-round draft pick for the NFL. Ten years ago, that was me. But there’s a vast difference between how my life unfolded and how Sam is being received after announcing that he is gay. A decade ago, no one in football was ready for this kind of truth.
In 2001, I became an offensive lineman at the University of Maryland — and I had grand plans. Like my teammates Domonique Foxworth and D’Qwell Jackson, both of whom went on to successful NFL careers, I wanted to be drafted to play in the pros. I also wanted to get involved in local community service, which I thought would help me chart a career in social justice after football. I turned down scholarships from football powerhouse Penn State as well as the University of Delaware to play in Maryland, close to the political action in Washington. After a few good years in the NFL demonstrating a commitment to public service, I figured I could go the way of Steve Largent, Jack Kemp or Jon Runyan.
But my thoughts were also consumed with my sexual orientation. I wanted to be straight. I wanted to enjoy all the privileges bestowed upon heterosexuals — especially our gridiron greats. In August 2002, my sophomore year, a man kissed me. It led to my first sexual experience with a man. It also made me angry and confused. I told myself that I had been seduced. I blamed him as I tried to push away my feelings. Living in my world and fulfilling my dreams seemed dependent on having a heterosexual life.
Someone on the football team found out about that encounter, and soon my roommate discovered gay porn on my computer. Gossip about me spread like wildfire. I suspected that everyone then knew I was gay, yet that didn’t stop players and coaches from using the same homophobic slurs and putdowns that had been commonplace throughout my experience in organized sports. It didn’t get to the level of bullying that Jonathan Martin endured with the Miami Dolphins, but no one reached out to me, either.
Football was supposed to be my ticket. I knew it could pave the way for everything I wanted to achieve. But football also felt like a tomb in which I was being buried alive. When teammates asked if I was gay, I responded by sleeping with women. I became angrier and self-destructive. I drank too much. I became depressed.
At that point, I reached out to my coaches. Drinking was a problem they could understand and discuss. Their advice: Just be happy. I took this as code for: “Just don’t be gay.”
I transferred after my junior year, trying to leave self-destructive behavior behind.
Yet I was still gay. I went to an LGBT support group at my new college, but I felt like an outsider there, too. There were other African Americans in the room but no other athletes. My performance on the field suffered, and my draft hopes faded. I grew convinced that scouts suspected I was gay and that I would be labeled a “distraction.” It all seemed pointless.
Like countless athletes of my generation and earlier ones, I wasn’t ready to take on a whole system and culture. Even now, despite the progress made by trailblazing athletes and tireless advocates, many young people still feel that revealing their personal truth would come at too high a cost. The hurdles are inherently higher for LGBT youth of color: 43 percent have had suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide, according to the National Strategy for Black Gay Youth in America, and more than half have been disowned by their families after coming out.
What I loved most about being an offensive lineman was creating opportunities for the running back or protecting the quarterback. In my life after football, I work to create opportunities for LGBT athletes that I never had. Having openly gay players in the NFL would go a long way toward helping LGBT athletes realize they are not alone. But making sports a safe and welcoming place for all participants will take much more. A good start would be open dialogue by administrators, coaches and players at every level about why diversity matters and how it benefits performance on the field.
Michael Sam’s every move will be dissected during the NFL Scouting Combine these next few days. But the measure of our collective sportsmanship will be determined by our response to his courageous steps: the actions we take to create a level playing field in athletics — one that does not discriminate against anyone.