Aaron Morse

Kain Colter, Michael Sam, And Progress

Created on Feb. 09, 2014 11:26 PM EST

In late January, Northwestern football made headlines around the nation when outgoing quarterback Kain Colter and current Northwestern players announced they were petitioning to form a union.

This Sunday, outgoing Missouri defensive end Michael Sam announced to the world that he is gay.

Between these two events, which showed off the future, we had National Signing Day, a strange day that may become a relic of the past sooner rather than later.

College football players are starting to challenge the old institutions of power and prejudice that for years have held the game back.

Colter and the Northwestern players have modest goals. They want to be deemed employees; they’re not even calling for pay-for-play. But they do want a seat at the table and guaranteed medical coverage, among other things that most people would consider basic rights of any worker. Inside Northwestern has a good round-up of what this means for college football’s immediate and distant future. Needless to say, despite the modest goals, this is a historic event in the history of the game.

Sam has a modest goal too. He just wants to play football. But his announcement is also sending shockwaves through the game. Sam actually came out to his Missouri teammates last offseason and the reaction was very positive. His teammates supported him unconditionally and Sam went on to be an All-American. The whole story can be found here.

Now he’s taking his game to the NFL. Already there have been some annoying, bigoted, anonymous comments from NFL folks which raise some eyebrows to say the least.  

The old guard is still there, both in the NCAA and the NFL, clinging to their power. But their time is coming to an end.

National Signing Day, a day that still utilizes fax machines, was this past week. It’s a day supposedly about the players, but it’s really not. It’s about coaches, and power, and winning, and rankings. The players are interchangeable, almost anonymous, sorted by stars and spreadsheets and 40 times. Fans get mad, really mad, when a player commits somewhere verbally, and then changes his mind.

Twitter users rip 17-year-old kids for changing their mind about where they want to go to school. I wanted to go to Northwestern, then I wanted to go to Syracuse, then I changed my mind and settled on Northwestern. Thank goodness I wasn’t a football recruit or I wouldn’t be allowed in the state of New York.

So while National Signing Day remains the old guard’s territory, the sport on and off the field is changing before our eyes. What Sam did was incredibly courageous because the NFL has never had an openly gay player. He’s almost certainly going to be the man to break those boundaries as he's projected as a possible mid-round pick. How the locker room he ends up in reacts to this announcement is anyone’s guess, but if the entire Missouri football team can rally around him, so can professionals, one would hope.

These seemingly disconnected stories about the attempt to form a union and a player coming out as gay show that the revolution is coming, and it will be televised. Northwestern football players are making sure future generations of college football players get the treatment they deserve from the schools they make millions of dollars for every Saturday in autumn. Michael Sam’s announcement is the first step in ensuring that all high school and college kids, regardless of their sexual orientation, can pursue their dream of playing at the next level without fear of being ostracized.

Progress can be a slow, frustrating thing, but over these last few weeks, we’ve seen it start to really accelerate in the game of football. When America’s most popular sport is being changed not from edicts from the top, but from the courage of the workers, both collectively and individually, we all win.

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