Thank you, Michael Sam.

Not for being gay. That's your business. But for dragging society to this milestone on the road to genuine tolerance and equality. It is a necessary step. The sports world needs this more than you do.

The day can't come soon enough when intimate matters are excluded from public debate.

Who people are and what they believe in off the field shouldn't factor into their status as athletes. Performance, talent, ethics, abiding by the law -- those are baselines. The beauty of a pluralist society is having people, with all their differences, not only coexist, but also respect and appreciate one another.

Discrimination, bigotry, prejudice, hatred -- society will be better when these things are pushed aside. And sports is one of the mainstream cultures still clinging to thought processes tainted by those elements.

These jolts of real life are good for sports. If the day is to come when sexual orientation, race, gender or class won't factor in how people are treated, it will be because these areas of sensitivity are addressed.

Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman forced us to talk about thugs and the subliminal lingo and depictions associated with certain black athletes. Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin opened public dialogue on bullying and the negative effects of machismo.

Now we're talking, again, about what it really means to embrace diversity.

Sam did that for us by coming out before turning pro, putting the most-successful sports institution, the NFL, under the microscope of acceptance. The tolerance of the league, and its adoring fan base, will be under intense scrutiny. Language and policies will need to change. Long-held perceptions of manhood and toughness will need altering.

We'll get to see if it's really all about performance on the field.

"The Oakland Raiders have long championed diversity and opportunity," general manager Reggie McKenzie said in a statement Monday. "The organization will evaluate Michael Sam based purely on his ability as a football player."

The San Francisco 49ers also applauded Sam's decision. "The 49ers commend Michael for the courage he has displayed, as he continues to pursue his NFL career," general manager Trent Baalke said in a statement. "We have and will continue to evaluate him as we do every draft-eligible player, which is always based on their projected contributions to our team on and off the field."

Sam, a defensive end at the University of Missouri, was the defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, widely hailed as the best football conference in the country. But his size (6-1, 260) makes him too small to play that position in the pros, and his speed might not be enough for him to play linebacker. Still, in a league of 32 teams and 1,600 roster spots, there has to be one for him.

It would be great if he landed in the Bay Area, reputed as a model for acceptance. It would be nice for our community to be the one that shows the nation how it's done.

Or maybe the Bay Area would be exposed for faux-tolerance.

Either way, sports needed Sam.

No disrespect to NBA veteran Jason Collins, but Sam is coming out at the start of his career, not at the end

No disrespect to WNBA star Brittney Griner, but Sam isn't coming into a league where many openly share his sexual orientation.

No disrespect to Major League Soccer player Robbie Rogers, but Sam is doing this on the biggest national stage by far. His post-sack celebrations, his night life and dating choices, his perspective and insight on issues, will be under the brightest lights imaginable.

To get where the sports world needs to go, somebody had to take one for the team. Someone had to bear the burden of being the pioneer.

Someone had to welcome the sting of homophobes and picketing by judgmental religious types. Someone had to subject himself to endless interviews, to be the obsession of the media, to welcome the heat of the spotlight. Someone had to choose rising above the locker room jokes, on-field taunts and all those uncomfortable moments inevitable due to the novelty of it all.

Even though it seems being "outed" might have forced him into the role, the end result is the same: Sam is the guy to take on this challenge.

To be sure, Sam is no Jackie Robinson. Those comparisons border on disrespect to the Robinson legacy. His pioneering involved entering a world with scant support, little pay, second-class treatment and vehement jeering. He stared down the threat of death and harm to his family.

This is a different time. Those who would hate Michael Sam will be muted, or at least offset by supporters. Likely the worst he'll face is people whispering behind his back, people who don't know him judging him, and some keyboard gangsters on Twitter. For those tough enough to say something to his face, I'd bet the defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference can handle himself.

Sam should be appreciated. Not just for being the first, but doing so with the bravado and conviction such challenges require. Twenty years from now, when whom people love is no longer a national story, when all people are appreciated and respected for their heritage, background and beliefs, Michael Sam is someone we will need to thank.

Contact Marcus Thompson II at mthomps2@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ThompsonScribe.