A year after Michael Sam, the CFL remains committed to welcoming gay athletes

Newly signed defensive end Michael Sam smiles as he is introduced to the media by the Montreal Alouettes CFL football team in Montreal in this May 26, 2015 file photo. Michael Sam, who last year became the first openly gay player drafted by a National Football League team, said on August 14, 2015 he was stepping away from football, citing concerns over his mental health. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi/Files

One year after Michael Sam became the first openly-gay athlete to play in a CFL game, the league again has no players who have publicly come out.

To suggest Sam's brief experience with the Montreal Alouettes (from May to August 2015) or the current lack of openly-gay CFL players reinforces the belief that gay athletes aren't welcome in the locker room of a professional sports team would be wrong, however. CFL staff, players, and outside partners from equality-promoting organization You Can Play paint a very different picture. Numerous people from those groups who spoke to 55-Yard Line this week said the CFL is not only at or near the front of professional sports leagues when it comes to accepting professional players and staff regardless of their sexuality, but also more than ready to embrace the next openly-gay athlete that comes its way.

While Sam's stint in the CFL may have been short, it, and the way the league handled it, had a substantial impact. CFL director of communications Paulo Senra, who is openly gay and had worked with You Can Play prior to arriving at the CFL, said the league's actions around Sam made him feel welcomed.

"I remember it being only a few weeks into my new role with the CFL when Michael was signed," Senra said. "The way we as a league and all of our teams handled his entrance into our game was unbelievably positive. Professionally, I was so proud to now be a part of such a progressive and welcoming organization, and personally, it reassured me that I was in fact in a safe work environment and that our words and actions were genuine."

Senra said the league's commitment to inclusivity starts at the top with commissioner Jeffrey Orridge, who demonstrated the CFL's focus on acceptance by marching in the Toronto Pride Parade last year. You Can Play's executive director Wade Davis also said that Orridge has been incredible to work with.

"It has been a real privilege to work with the CFL, and I think that speaks to the leadership of the league," Davis said. "The commissioner is someone who I've grown to know and to love, and I can also say this with as much honesty as I know how to, that having the chance to work with him and to speak with him on three different occasions, he really is doing this work with as much fidelity as I've seen from any sports league's commissioner. This is something that he's not just doing because of the media or whatever. In his heart, he truly knows that this is what needs to be done for all individuals. And even if there isn't a player in the CFL who is gay, he knows that his players need to get to a space in life where they're having these types of hard conversations. They're thinking about the world and their role in it. I think that's a beautiful thing for the CFL. The men within the CFL, the players and coaches, will definitely benefit from his leadership."

Canadian Football League Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge speaks at a news conference ahead of the CFL 103rd Grey Cup championship football game in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, November 27, 2015. REUTERS/Lyle Stafford

The CFL's partnership with You Can Play stretches back to 2014, before both Orridge (who took the commissioner's job in March 2015) and Sam, and it's been a fruitful one. Since then, every team has had a You Can Play ambassador to coordinate program efforts, promote equality in their communities and provide resources and support to any player or staff member who requests it. In 2015 alone, You Can Play playbooks were provided to every player at training camp, and the organization held trainings for Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Ottawa. Those teams also all did High-Five events with YCP to reach out to local LGBT youth. Moreover, over 20 CFL and Argos' staff joined Orridge in the Toronto Pride Parade, as did Argos' YCP ambassador Zander Robinson. One of the biggest things in 2015 was Davis himself coming in to train all front office staff in the league's head office in Toronto, which he said was unusual for a sports league, and part of why the overall partnership with the CFL has worked so well.

"It has been a dream, and I'm not just saying that because they're our partners," he said. "There are very few leagues like the CFL that allow you access to not just players and coaches, but also the CFL front office. So I've done training for players, coaches, and the CFL front office. ...I think we often tend to focus on players, but there are also people in the league departments, in the HR departments, who may also identify as LGBT. It's just as important to create a safe space for front-office staff as it is for players, because this idea that sports are homophobic doesn't just impact players, it also impacts the people who are making the magic happen from their desks."

Davis, a former NFL player with the Titans, Seahawks and Redskins, said part of the reason there aren't more openly-gay players in professional sports isn't about pro sports leagues, but about the larger world.

"One of the myths about sports and specifically locker rooms is that players who identify as gay show up there with the intention of coming out," he said. "I would say 90 per cent of players who I've ever spoken to, they weren't out in college, they weren't out in high school. So the idea that they can't be openly gay, it wasn't located in the locker room, it was discovered inside of them in real life. ...Yes, sports may create different types of conditions that may add to the concept that they can't come out as openly gay, but for myself, I was not going to come out in the NFL because I didn't come out in college, I didn't feel comfortable to come out in high school. I think we have to take a step back and ask, 'What is it about society, what is it about ideas of toxic masculinity, what is it about the sexism that we're feeding our young men to believe that's showing up in the world, and inviting them to believe that they're gay is such a hard thing? What else is happening in the system?' To be fair, the locker room is a very hypermasculine, sexist, homophobic place, but to me, it didn't feel that different from the rest of society."

Hamilton Tiger-Cats' Brian Bulcke celebrates a sack against the Saskatchewan Roughriders during the first half of their CFL football in Hamilton, September 14, 2014. REUTERS/Mark Blinch (CANADA - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

 

Davis said that's why You Can Play tries to not just change things inside a league, but have that league and its staff, coaches and players work to change the surrounding world for the better. He said the CFL's been very helpful on that front.

"It's been key to be able to have the CFL understand the importance of doing work not just with players, but also taking players into the community, engaging and creating a really beautiful dialogue with individuals who are impacted when players use homophobic language or when players don't understand the impact that they can have in the LGBT community," he said. "Just having players go and visit those organizations, and not just show up in your typical way of having a player show up for 10 minutes giving his own speech, but actually have a player sit in conversation, in a circle, where they're on the same level, listen to the stories of the actual kids, see themselves in these youths and be able to take that back to their team, that's really a transformative experience."

You Can Play's work with the league has continued this year, with Davis addressing hundreds of staff from across the country at the CFL Congress meetings and training coaches at the CFL Combine. There's more ahead, too; trainings and High-Five events with the other five teams that didn't have them last year (B.C., Edmonton, Winnipeg, Saskatchewan and Hamilton) are already planned for this fall, and a major CFL-YCP announcement is expected later this month. Davis said he's already seeing an impact from what's been done so far, though.

"One thing that I'll say has been most exciting is when you see a player for the second time, and he tells you that there are players now who, when someone uses homophobic or sexist language, someone in the locker room feels empowered to speak up," he said. "That is one of the most amazing things that happens. Our work is helping individuals to evolve and to grow."

Davis said another important part of YCP's work with the CFL is not focusing on punishing players who use homophobic language, but rather teaching them about its effects and helping them see who it affects.

"What does it look like if a player who uses homophobic language has to go and volunteer, and do work in spaces where there are individuals where he can learn who he's actually impacting, to put a face to the apology?" he asked. "That's the way where we can do the work to bring communities together instead of further distancing them."

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 02: Honoree Demi Lovato (L) and NFL player Michael Sam take a selfie during the 27th Annual GLAAD Media Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on April 2, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for GLAAD)

Many CFL players have said they felt there was a strong culture of acceptance even before You Can Play and even before Sam, though. Toronto Argonauts' defensive tackle Brian Bulcke, who's new to the Argonauts this year after stints with Calgary and Hamilton, said all of the CFL locker rooms he's been in have seemed quite inclusive, even relative to the college experience he had at Stanford and working with people in the famously-diverse Bay Area.

"One of the best parts of the CFL is there's so many good guys," he said. "Sexual orientation, religious beliefs, you're more evaluated on what you can do on the field, and that's been pretty good about this league for a long time now. ...From a personal standpoint, having spent so much time in San Francisco, Stanford always has a very liberal viewpoint, I was really happy to see how open and accepting the league was when I walked into Calgary six years ago. And that was the same, whether it was Calgary, Hamilton, or Toronto, there's been a great core of guys."

However, Bulcke said the You Can Play partnership (he served as a YCP ambassador with Hamilton) is drawing further attention to the need to promote equality and inclusiveness, and that's been positive.

"The last year or so, it's been great, and it's really not about the individual, it's about bringing a bigger standard to the teams, making sure everyone on the team is educated, or at least has access to the resources to kind of share that standard," he said. "One of the great things about the CFLPA, You Can Play, the CFL kind of coming together is now we're united. It's not just individuals talking about it, it's the whole league. ...We've definitely made improvements. But, for a long time, this league's been a really beautiful place to play and watch."

He said a big advantage of the YCP programs is providing resources and a safe space for those who want to learn more about inclusiveness and LGBT issues.

"It's no longer this admission of not knowing," he said. "If you have a question or you just feel like you're a teammate, you can become an advocate and help educate others. It's an awesome toolkit to kind of address any issues that might come up."

Bulcke said the key is on-field performance, though, and focusing on that alone will really bolster the league being open to all.

"The one thing for me is always evaluating players on how they play, what they put on film, who they are, and I think always focusing on that is really important," he said. "At the end of the day, the nose tackle playing next to Sam, he cares much more about the X's and O's, whether or not plugging that B gap opens up an A gap on a stunt. That is 95 per cent of our thought process, that's why we're here."

Bulcke said that wasn't an issue with Sam, who he called a "phenomenal player."

Calgary punter Rob Maver echoed Bulcke's comments about on-field performance being the key to any player's acceptance.

"I'm of the belief that as long as you're respectful and you help us win football games, I couldn't care less about your sexual orientation," he said.

Maver said he thinks most players think that way, and that the trend is continuing to grow.

"I think the vast majority of the locker room is inclusive," he said. "I think a lot of the younger players that come in now are much more open-minded to these issues. The more of these younger players that come in, the more that changes the attitude in the room, right? And obviously, there are several players that have chosen to be outspoken about it because they do not share these beliefs, but I do believe that it's a case where the squeakiest wheel gets the grease, so to speak. The vast majority of the room, I'd argue, is very agreeable with it, and it's not an issue to most."

In this image taken from video, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, left, gets a kiss at a draft party in San Diego, before he was selected in the seventh round, 249th overall, by the St. Louis Rams in the NFL draft Saturday, May 10, 2014. The Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year last season came out as gay in media interviews this year. (AP Photo/ESPN)

There's a point there. We've seen several instances of players tweeting homophobic slurs, especially before Sam actually played in the CFL, but those mostly came from players who are no longer in the league. Former Montreal receiver Arland Bruce III perhaps made the worst comments (about footage of Sam kissing his boyfriend during the 2014 NFL draft), but he was fined for them and then released by the Alouettes a couple of weeks later, about a year before they signed Sam. Fellow receiver Maurice Price tweeted homophobic comments about Sam in 2014, while Price was with Calgary. He's now out of the league (but still offering some anti-gay commentary on Twitter). It appears the only player who the CFL has fined for homophobic tweets who's still in the league is B.C. defensive tackle Bryant Turner (who was with Winnipeg when he made those comments, back in 2014), and he's apologized profusely for those comments.

Meanwhile, on the other side, the CFL has seen players actively campaigning for equality and inclusivity long before the You Can Play partnership. In 2012, then-Toronto players Mike Bradwell and Joe Eppele spoke passionately against homophobia, as did then-Calgary RB Jon Cornish. B.C. receiver Marco Iannuzzi moderated a YCP forum in 2013 before the official partnership, and marched in the Vancouver Pride Parade (along with a sizeable Lions' contingent) later that year. Those positive things haven't received as much coverage as the few homophobic tweets we've seen, but controversies do tend to get more attention. Even beyond that, though, Maver said the idea of homophobic slurs being regularly flung around in the locker room seems to be largely a myth, at least from his perspective.

"I haven't heard any slurs or anything," he said.

So, what about Sam himself? He signed with the Alouettes in May 2015 as a hotly-touted prospect who had been co-SEC defensive player of the year, and despite his being cut by both the NFL's St. Louis Rams and Dallas Cowboys the previous year, he still seemed to have a lot of potential. He curiously left training camp before the preseason to deal with personal issues, though, and while he returned and played in a regular-season game for the Alouettes, he didn't make a huge on-field impact (12 snaps, no tackles).

When Sam left the team a week later in August 2015, citing "concern(s) with my mental health," it may have been a good resolution for both parties; Sam had clear talent, but hadn't fully adapted to the CFL game and its differences (and the missed preseason time certainly didn't help there), so his exit wasn't a huge on-field loss for the Alouettes, and it gave them more cap space. From his side, it meant he didn't have to spend more time in a league that wasn't really in his long-term plans (he said that September he "wasn't getting better" in the CFL), and one where he was under an immense media microscope.

It's notable that despite his quick exit, the CFL didn't seem to treat Sam badly. Teammates like Josh Bourke and John Bowman were very supportive of him during training camp, and the Alouettes' organization was much nicer to him than they were contractually required to be. They made it clear when he left the first time that he would be welcomed back, and then they actually welcomed him back. Then-head coach Tom Higgins and general manager Jim Popp stated unequivocally that homophobia would not be tolerated in the locker room. Davis said he felt the CFL handled the Sam situation reasonably well, and any issues that showed up likely had a lot to do with Sam's unprecedented status.

"I think one of the issues for any sports league is the first," he said. "The CFL and the NFL were really the first organizations that had to deal with an openly-gay player in the five major sports, and both leagues brought You Can Play in as soon as it happened, so I was allowed to do trainings for the Rams, I did trainings for Montreal, so I think that they handled it as best as they knew how given that they were in uncharted territory. Having the chance to since meet and have these conversations with players, with owners, to really hopefully set the stage for everyone to relax and say, 'Hey, Michael Sam's been in NFL locker rooms, he's been in locker rooms his entire life, he's not here to do anything but play football just like you are,' I think from the standpoint of trying to make everyone involved understand that this is about the game of football, they did the best job possible. I think that they also did have conversations with Michael and create the conditions for Michael to be as successful as possible."

Montreal Alouettes' Michael Sam (2nd L) is given a hug as he watches his team warm-up from the sidelines prior to their CFL football game against the Calgary Stampeders in Montreal, July 3, 2015. Sam, the first openly gay player drafted into the NFL, had been suspended by the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes earlier this month after the defensive lineman left the team's training camp last week for unexplained personal reasons. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

While some Alouettes and other CFLers had negative things to say about Sam (anonymously, and especially around his final exit from the CFL), those weren't really about his sexuality, and had much more to do with a perception that he hadn't earned the media attention he was receiving and with questions about his commitment to the CFL (which turned out to be justified). That's worth bearing in mind with Sam, too; he was never just a CFL player. He originally wanted to do a reality show on Oprah's OWN TV network during training camp with the Rams before backing off, and he made it clear during and after leaving the CFL that he had plenty of interests beyond the league. That may have prompted some of the criticism. Still, Bourke (now the Toronto Argonauts' left tackle, but he was with Montreal last year during the Sam era) spoke to 55-Yard Line this week, and said Sam's sexuality wasn't a big deal inside the locker room.

"When he signed, it's just about playing football, and if you're a good football player, it doesn't matter which sex you're attracted to," Bourke said. "Everything was fine."

Bourke said he never saw or heard any homophobic comments or bullying towards Sam inside the Alouettes' locker room.

"I never saw anything, I never heard anyone make a comment, I never saw anything throughout practice or in the locker room that would lead me to believe that," Bourke said. "Now, I'm not around all 55 guys, I'm not friends with everyone on the team, so maybe people go home in their little cliques and make comments, but you know, I thought that we handled it very well. ...As far as I know, there was no issue."

Bourke said even the media circus that sprung up around Sam wasn't a problem for him.

"I'm sure there was some animosity, maybe, with some guys, but I don't care," he said. "I'm an offensive lineman, nobody wants to talk to me anyways. For me, I really couldn't care less, but I'm sure some of the guys who like the limelight were like 'Who's this guy coming in, getting all the attention?' but that kind of stuff really doesn't bother me."

That limelight of both Canadian and international media focusing on the CFL's first gay player, often to the exclusion of the rest of the league, may have been an issue for some, though. Maver said while there will still be challenges, Sam paving the way should make it much easier for any future openly-gay players.

"Whenever you're a trailblazer for anything, it's tough, right?" he said. "So, now that football has seen an openly-gay football player in Michael Sam, I definitely think it will make it easier for the next one."

Davis said he thinks it would be less challenging for another openly-gay CFL player after Sam, especially given the league's pro-equality efforts.

"Yes, I do, and I say that not just based on the Michael Sam situation, but it's based on the level of visibility and the level of buy-in that the CFL has," he said. "It's not like the CFL said, 'Hey, Michael Sam's no longer here, we don't have to continue doing this work.' They are truly invested in making sure that this becomes a part of the language, a part of what the CFL's all about, that everyone, regardless of sexual identity and gender orientation, is welcome in the front office, is welcome in the locker room, on the football field, in the stands. And they're doing this in a way that I feel the system of the CFL can handle it. They're not trying to change the entire identity of the game overnight. They're doing this with a lot of great intentionality, of, 'Hey, let's check in to see how this training went, let's check in to see what happened with Michael Sam.' So I think that's the intentionality behind it, and doing it in a space where they feel it's the right thing to do, not because they have to."

Bourke said any openly-gay player will still face some adversity and scrutiny, but it may be less than what Sam faced.

"I don't think it's ever going to be easy, but maybe easier, I guess you could use that word," he said. "I think we've come a long way. Listen, we live in a world where racism still exists, where people get persecuted for the type of sex they like, or religion. There's always going to be narrow-minded people, ignorant people, but I don't really care about them. ...By statistics, there's one gay person on every single CFL team. Now, there might not be any on one team, there might be two on another, but odds are, guys are out there, but [not coming out], that's on them as a personal decision. I can't speak to that because I'm not in that situation, but I can imagine it would be very, very difficult to do something like that. But, you know, maybe Michael paved the way for someone else to step forward at some point."

Bourke is the third vice-president of the CFL Players' Association, and he said he feels the union can play a role in helping any player who comes out.

"I'm sure as an association, we would support any player who decides to come out," he said. "We would support that one hundred per cent."

So, there seems to be substantial support for further openly-gay players in the league. However, there are still improvements that can be made. Davis said one thing he'd love to see the CFL do is work to more intentionally inform fans about creating a safe space at games.

"We've had a lot of conversations about how do they handle fans," he said. "Do you, before every game, have an announcement that is intentional about fans, that this is a safe space for all individuals to show up and that includes individuals that are LGBT? If there was one thing that I would love the CFL to do, and I know that there are conversations about that, it is to be intentional about before games, using the language of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Getting people to actually hear those actual words is a very different thing from saying that this is an open and accessible space for all individuals. I think that that's the next step the league is going towards. ...I think that's the next step the league needs to take, being much more intentional about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Then people start to actually associate the fact that there are these individuals within the CFL."