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What took so long?

Look no further than the nation’s college locker rooms for evidence of social progress

Fans wrote “Sam” in the snow this winter at Missouri’s Faurot Field. The day before the supportive message appeared, defensive end Michael Sam announced he is gay.

Michael Sam answered many questions in February, when the Missouri lineman chose to own his story and announce two months before the NFL Draft that he was gay. They were tinged with the inevitable sensationalism: Was the NFL ready for an openly gay player? How would his teammates react? Would it impact Sam’s draft status?

It’s too bad the one question that held the most meaning didn’t get much attention: Why didn’t this news already leak?

If these questions are intended to force society to look at itself introspectively, to search for worldwide meaning in one man’s personal revelation, then that is the one most worthy of asking. In an age in which every secret is a tweet away from public controversy, Sam’s announcement to his teammates last season didn’t shatter the Tigers locker room with a homophobic outbreak. By all accounts they congratulated him, questioned why it took him so long to open up, and went about their business in a 12-2 season that finished with Sam earning SEC Defensive Player of the Year.

If you want to find evidence of social progress, that was the moment. Yet the questions continue pointing to the NFL as the draft nears. Reporters continue to explore whether pro football’s culture is ready to change, and continue to overlook the deeper meaning shown in the silent solidarity of more than 120 young men who never gave up the secret their teammate shared.

“People will look at (Sam’s announcement) as the moment that everything changed,” said Outsports.com editor Cyd Zeigler, “but that will be because they are late to the party.”

Zeigler has documented that party for 15 years, helping gay athletes step into public view by sharing their stories on Outsports.com. In recent years he’s repeatedly seen stories like Sam’s play out.

There was Brian Sims, co-captain of the Bloomsburg football team, who told his teammates he was gay in the midst of leading them to 11 straight wins and an appearance in the 2000 Division II national championship game.

Greg DeStephen, a diver at Missouri, initially was outed by a teammate and shunned by some other swimmers, but he was eventually elected team captain. He inspired another Missouri swimmer, Vito Cammisano, to come out to total acceptance in 2011.

The stories remained consistent across divisions. In 2014 alone, Outsports has shared the coming-out stories of an Augsburg linebacker, a Columbia women’s soccer athlete and a Willamette kicker – all before Sam and Massachusetts guard Derrick Gordon made national headlines as barrier breaking gay athletes. At the same time, on college campuses across America, student-athletes – both gay and straight – have formed grass-roots organizations focused on creating tolerant atmospheres for gay athletes (see page 29).

“The change has already happened,” Zeigler said. “What we’re seeing now is the evidence of that change.”

There’s still work to be done, of course. The atmosphere that keeps gay athletes closeted  – the machismo-driven culture that tosses slanderous terms casually around the locker room – still makes that revelation a terrifying prospect. Stories abound from former student-athletes who have expressed their discomfort at opening up about their sexuality in college. And consider the homophobic comments being made by NFL players just weeks before Sam’s announcement.

While it’s important to look forward and celebrate Sam for forcing a necessary conversation upon the NFL, it’s equally important to appreciate what has already taken place.

Nobody noticed Sam wearing a rainbow bracelet during a game, embossed with the word “pride,” because no one was looking for it.

The national dialogue never pressed Sam’s teammates about why the team was so accepting – the same manner of inclusion Scott Cooper told Outsports he experienced at Augsburg, and Jourdan Elyse Sayers felt at Columbia, and Conner Mertens sensed at Willamette.

The NFL will still face those questions, though. And his story will continue to make news as Sam proceeds through the NFL Draft, training camp and preseason games, inching closer to the first pro football game in which an openly gay athlete competes. Those questions will only serve to show how much progress still needs to be made.

But in the locker room at Missouri and many other campuses, those questions are already being answered.