When the leader of the gay-straight student group at Florida Atlantic University heard a top-flight college football player had come out as gay, she couldn’t stop asking one question:
“Who is he?”
Daniela Feriozzi took to Twitter and soon learned Missouri’s Michael Sam is among college football’s best players and should be a top selection in this year’s NFL Draft. He told his teammates before last season, when they went 12-2, and he was voted the Southeastern Conference’s co-defensive player of the year.
Feriozzi gets why it’s a big deal that the NFL may soon have an openly gay player. But the reaction from other college students, she said, has been predictable.
“For people our age, it’s not a big deal,” said Feriozzi, 21, student president of FAU’s Lambda United.
Today’s college students have grown up in a world that is not just tolerant, but increasingly accepting of gays in all walks of life.
They grew up with Ellen DeGeneres on morning television, openly gay classmates in the lunchroom and gay couples married at this year’s Grammys, where rapper Macklemore, who won four awards, performed his hit song, “Same Love,” about the cultural divide in gay rights.
They’ve seen Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repealed. (The Army has a web page dedicated to it.) They heard attorney general Eric Holder recently order the government to recognize same sex marriages. As for tolerance in general, they voted for a black president and saw two states vote to legalize marijuana.
A college football player comes out and they shrug their shoulders.
“We’re at the point where we embrace people for their character and not for things that shouldn’t matter,” said Alyssa Robinson, 22, president of Palm Beach State College’s student Gay-Straight Alliance. “It’s more about what you’re bringing to the table.”
To many, it was no surprise that it was a college student, who has grown up in a more tolerant world, to test the NFL’s old stereotypes.
Bill Konigsberg, a former ESPN and Associated Press writer and editor, has written several young-adult novels with gay characters as the protagonist, including a high school quarterback who comes out in the award-winning book “Out of the Pocket.”
“This is not a big deal to anyone who is college-age,” Konigsberg said. “It’s just older people who have the power, and unfortunately, they still run the world.”
Apropos of sports, let’s go to the stats.
Seventy percent of those ages 18 to 29, and 64 percent ages 30 to 49, are accepting of homosexuality, according to a Pew Research survey of more than 1,000 households published in June of last year. For those 50 and older, it’s close to a toss up, at 52 percent.
A Gallup poll looked at same-sex marriage and found that 70 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds supported it. And the numbers went down with age, to 39 percent for those 55 and older.
Lowest among support? Older men, still the bread-and-butter of NFL fan demographics.
“With the young generation, it’s almost as if it’s not an issue, at all,” said Paul Guequierre, deputy press secretary for Human Rights Campaign. “Pop culture is far ahead of where we are. Far ahead of Congress, that’s for sure.”
It’s still legal to fire someone on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity, for example, a man who might identify as a woman.
And so Michael Sam’s announcement could also become a labor issue: The NFL could refuse to draft him or sign him.
The Employee Non-Discrimination Act to close that loophole was first introduced in 1994, reintroduced in different forms nearly every year since and has not passed. To date, there is no federal law protecting someone from being fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity.
And that, say some of Sam’s young, forward-thinking peers, is why his announcement still matters.
“We are getting closer, but there are a lot of conservative people, middle age people and I don’t think their views are going to change,” Robinson, the Palm Beach State student, said. “It’s not as big a deal, but it’s still a big deal.”