I was eating at a Chili's in Iowa City the other day, en route back to Chicago from speaking at an LGBT college conference, when I first heard the name Michael Sam.
Not being a fan of college football, I had never heard of the NFL draft prospect who is an All-American and Associated Press defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference.
However, what I did know as I watched the ESPN story unfold across Sunday prime time TV was that he could possibly be the first male athlete in major American sports to come out before his athletic career was over, unlike the few before him.
Lately, it feels like coming out as L, G, B or T is the one popular way to ignite one's career if one is within the sports or entertainment fields, or politics, or even many other roles.
We live in a moment where the media has become fascinated with watching the spectacle that is a closet door opening—particularly a closet door that opens when one's career is on a downturn; the most popular example being currently unsigned NBA player Jason Collins.
Collins, who came out in 2013 in Sports Illustrated, has been heralded as the first active athlete in major American sports to come out of the closet. His coming out has been called a watershed moment for the LGBT movement. The Obamas, Oprah and many more are singing his praises.
Collins has yet to play in the NBA since coming out and is currently unsigned, which has more to do with age than his orientation.
"In terms of Jason not getting signed, based on everything I've been told, it's a basketball decision," NBA commissioner Adam Silver told espn.com . "Our teams want to win and Jason waited until the very tail end of his career to make that announcement."
With Collins's chances of playing in the NBA again beginning to look meek, don't feel too bad for him. He is traveling the world booking speaking engagements—now more famous than while in the closet—joining a growing group of others who have used this same tactic. Let's call it Professionally Gay.
I point this out not to diminish the positive effect his story and the stories of other celebrities and athletes who have came out have had. Without them, I don't think a story like Michael Sam's could have happened in 2014. I point it out to enhance the importance of Sam's story or even that of WNBA first overall draft pick Brittney Griner, who came out last year.
If Sam does get drafted into the NFL, it will send one of the loudest messages to LGBT people around the world that we've had in terms of visibility and coming out.
A story like Sam's tells young LGBT people that they don't have to stay in the closet. It tells them that they don't need to wait until their careers are almost over to then, finally, live their lives fully visible.
Sam's story, Griner's and the personal stories of students from that conference I spoke at show that coming out isn't a move you need to make when you've run out of other cards to play.
It doesn't even need to be a card at all.
Zach Stafford is a RedEye special contributor.
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