Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out as gay to the public just last night, but his teammates and coaches have all known since before the beginning of last season. The Tigers went 12-2 this year, tying a school record for victories, and maybe proving that having a gay player on your team is not an obstacle to success. (Especially when he happens to be your best player.) In fact, even though the Tigers kept Sam's story a secret, they made it a habit to tell everyone how great their team chemistry was.
NFL observers are already questioning (anonymously, of course) whether the league is ready for openly gay player who won't create a tragic "chemical imbalance" in the locker room, which is a nice way of saying that no one wants to deal with the potential for bigotry among other teammates. For Missouri, however, not only was there no "chemical imbalance," Tiger players and coaches couldn't stop talking how much they like each other. Numerous quotes from throughout the season — after teammates learned the news, but before Sam's personal details became public — show a Missouri team constantly harping on their great chemistry.
For example, in October, head coach Gary Pinkel was asked about the overall team chemistry after Missouri walloped Florida to go to 7-0. "I saw this back in August and I told a lot of different people about it. It doesn't surprise me," Pinkel said. (August, coincidentally, was the same month Sam came out to his teammates.) "There is chemistry and determination on this team," Pinkel also told The New York Times. "A combination of both of those and high leadership skills affects the whole team."
Two weeks earlier, wide receiver L'Damian Washington told ESPN, "The chemistry on this team is unreal, and all the guys have bonded and bought into exactly what we're trying to accomplish this year." He adds, "One thing from the outside looking in that people don't notice is the chemistry of this team, how resilient this team is."
Running back Marcus Murphy said in late October, "I think we build our bond just based on being together pretty much all the time ... We build that chemistry through so much on and off the field. It's pretty easy when you're just looking at a guy and you know that you'll give your all for him next to you, and he'll do the same for you."
Of course, with any group of 18-24 year-olds, it's not all business: “We have that switch where we can turn it on and off," center Evan Boehm told the Columbia Daily Tribune. You see it on Saturdays. We turn that switch on, and we’re ready to go. But when we come off the field, we’re joking with each other, laughing and talking about plays that happened on the field."
Reporters who covered the team noticed it too: In November, Gabe DeArmond of Missouri football blog PowerMizzou.com wrote, "Chemistry and winning are the chicken and the egg of team sports. Do you have to win to have chemistry or do you have to have chemistry to win? Either way, this Missouri team has it."
Even Missouri's basketball coach Frank Haith got in on the chemistry beat. "Just watching [Pinkel] and what he’s done with this team, and I told him earlier, this team in terms of their chemistry, how well they play together, how confident they are … it just makes me feel very special to be a part of that and be around him and what he’s done with that football program,” Haith said.
So instead of asking anonymous NFL executives whether a gay player would hurt team chemistry, perhaps people should just look to Sam's teammates. Not only does it not hurt team unity, it might have even helped bring them together.