When Michael Sam became the first openly gay football player drafted into the NFL, he also made sports TV history by kissing his boyfriend on camera. And he has no harsher critics than his fellow athletes.

The public is rapidly growing more tolerant of LGBT Americans, but the sports community is lagging. Remember Jason Collins, the first openly gay NBA player? He’s still being taunted by fellow basketball players, despite signing with the Brooklyn Nets as a permanent member of their 2014 squad.

Although Collins’ struggle for acceptance continues, the novelty of his story has faded.

Jeff Fisher NFL coach of gay football player Michael Sam

The Brit_2/Flickr

So yes, it’s great that the St. Louis Rams drafted Sam in the 7th round on May 10. But the sports community sure hasn’t reached the promised land of tolerance. At least not yet.

Do you know what story isn’t going away? The ongoing saga of Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments. I’m not saying that Sterling doesn’t deserve the $2.5 million penalty or the lifetime ban from the NBA. He most certainly does.

But what happens to those whose homophobia is as egregious as Sterling’s racism?

Not a whole lot, it turns out. The powers that be in our sports communities are slapping wrists left and right. But no one is sending the message that needs to be spread: Hate will not be tolerated, period.

And the backlash is undeniably hateful. Reactions from current and former NFL players on social media include comments like “horrible” and “Man U got little kids lookin at the draft,” suggesting that a display of affection between two gay men is a bad example to set for our children.

After all, think what could happen if people grew up believing they could love whomever they want.

Even athletes in other sports joined in the hatefest. University of Mississippi’s star basketball player Marshall Henderson also tweeted his concerns over children watching the draft and added that the kiss was “#SICKENING.”

Just like Jackie Robinson wasn’t the first-and-only African American to play professional baseball, Sam won’t be the last gay pro footballer. He’s left the closet door open for whoever comes next.

It’s likely that Michael Sam and the Rams will laugh last. You see, Michael Sam is no bench-warming scrub who was selected in the final round of the draft as a publicity stunt. Far from it.

Sam won the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year award, beating out South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft. He was also unanimously selected as an All-American.

His athletic prowess sets him apart more than his status as an LGBT pioneer, and Sam’s availability in the 7th round of the draft made him an absolute steal for the Rams. No one would be surprised to see him develop into an elite defensive player.

Some other members of the Rams have also come out in favor of the pick and have offered their vocal support.

“I’m going to welcome him with open arms,” said Tre Mason, a 3rd-round pick from Auburn. “Everyone’s entitled to who they want to love.” Head coach Jeff Fisher also chimed in, saying, “In the world of diversity we live in now, I’m honored to be a part of this.”

One more indication of where this is heading: Michael Sam’s newly released NFL jersey is outselling the majority of his rookie counterparts’ gear.

Despite a few bad apples, most athletes and fans have warmly welcomed the NFL’s first openly gay player. Now it’s time to lift the voices of acceptance to drown out the anti-gay slurs.

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Joel Kendrick

Joel Kendrick is an OtherWords editorial assistant. OtherWords.org

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