So my friend Michael Lewis wrote an excellent blog post on Michael Sam’s recent decision to join the cast of Dancing with the Stars. I posted it on Facebook, and the response was, eh, less than laudatory.
The general take: Why shouldn’t he do this? He surely needs the money. He’s allowed to do what anyone else does. The NFL wasn’t interested anyhow. If this were a straight player, the league would celebrate it.
But here’s the thing: Michael Sam isn’t an ordinary player. Hell, he’s not even a player. But he’s trying to be. Desperately, he says. He’s trying to break a barrier that’s existed for the entire history of organized professional football. There has never been an openly gay player in the sport. Never, ever. And it’s a sport that feeds off of machismo. Off of perceived toughness. Off of players referring to the weakest of peers as “faggots.”
It’s also a sport that feeds off of selflessness. You’re supposed to be one of many. Maybe, if you’re Terrell Owens or Chad Ochocinco, the league will allow you to stand out. But only because you’re a star. A superstar. But, in the NFL, grunts don’t stand out. They put their heads down, they show up, they play. Period. Is it a dumb, flawed system? Yes. But, right now, that’s the system Michael Sam is working to enter.
Only he’s not just Michael Sam. He’s Michael Sam—openly gay athlete. And if a team is going to take a shot on him, it’s because the personnel department sees him as a potentially beneficial part of the organization. He’ll bust his ass, he’ll do whatever’s asked, he’ll lift and run and stay late. He won’t be a burden. He’ll shut the fuck up. Or, to restate, he’ll be as little a distraction as possible. He’ll prove himself on the field, and only on the field. Becky Hammond, now with the San Antonio Spurs, is the first woman to work as an NBA assistant coach. Had she first appeared on Dancing with the Stars, this never happens.
Now, maybe Sam on an NFL roster was never to be. Maybe the NFL was done with him. Maybe, by falling short with the Rams and Cowboys, he showed that he’s simply not pro football material. Maybe. But, by agreeing to dance on national TV, Sam has sealed his professional football fate. Could an established star have appeared on DWTS? Certainly—establishment gives you certain privileges. But, by signing up, Sam has decided to go the route of showmanship and entertainment and reality TV fame.
Which, again, is his right.
But his football hopes die with it.