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The Main Thing: Can Sam Play?

As he prepares for the upcoming NFL draft, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam’s announcement that he is gay is the first by an active prospect or player in the league. Although out to his teammates last August, the AP Defensive Player of the Year in the SEC decided to address his orientation when NFL scouts began fishing around asking questions, such as, “Have you ever seen him with a girl? ” or “Does he like girls?”

No need for them to dig any longer. Now the question is, will the announcement affect his draft stock? A number of anonymous NFL sources say it will – to a point. It seems likely that the fascination with Sam’s sexuality will pass, and people eventually will ask a more germane question, like “Can he play?”

And Sam will likely have eased the path for gay athletes in the future. But I was reminded how difficult it may have been for Sam when his father told The New York Times that he was uncomfortable with a gay player in the NFL and “don’t want my grandkids growing up in that environment,” and later saying, “I’m old school – a man and a woman.” Even his own family is struggling to understand the complexities of human sexuality, making it likely the NFL will have some hurdles on the journey to complete acceptance.

* The joys of the Winter Olympics are partly a result of the differences between relatively unknown and unrewarded cold-weather sports and our grossly commercial professional sports culture, where athletes can make tens of millions of dollars. And while our well-paid athletes work extremely hard, so do the athletes in many of the events taking place in Sochi. You don’t see a lot of high-profile cross-country skiers or biathaletes.

And for American competitors, the sports are not just relatively unknown, but underfunded as well. One of these sports is luge, dominated by Germans and featuring a small metal-and-plastic sled that is ridden on your back at speeds over 80 mph through banked turns on icy tracks. Heading to Sochi, no American had ever won an Olympic medal in luge. I suppose my attraction to it is because it is an incredibly technical sport, where tiny adjustments in steering can lead to fast time or critical mistakes. So watching women’s luge with three U.S. contestants was at first interesting and then fascinating, as American Erin Hamlin was up with the leaders after two of the four runs. When she held on to third place after the third run, you could see the excitement of her coaches and family members and hear it in the voices of the television announcers.

Was it possible that an American could get to the podium? When Hamlin was in the staring gate for her final run, the analyst commented on the incredible pressure Hamlin was facing. One of the contradictions in luge is that it requires a relaxed body to perform at a maximum level. Hamlin pushed out of the gate and was nearly flawless on her run, giving her the bronze medal. The Americans were nearly delirious, thrilled beyond words at an awesome accomplishment on the sports biggest stage.

There won’t be any mega contract, no million-dollar payout, but you couldn’t have a more competitive, dramatic finish. Just a little reminder of how compelling the Olympics can be.