michael sam

On Michael Sam

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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.

All true.

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.

When a Kiss is More Than a Kiss

Throughout the modern history of American social movements, there are always moments that capture a people; moments that come to define a calling and a mood and the importance of the event at hand.

Off the top of my head, I think of Pee Wee Reese wrapping his arm around Jackie Robinson. I think of Elton John performing at Ryan White’s funeral. I think of a yellow ribbon at the site where Matthew Shepard was killed.

And now I think of the kiss, featured above, between Michael Sam and his boyfriend.

On surface, the news today was of Sam—the University of Missouri defensive end and, now, the NFL’s first openly gay player—being drafted by the St. Louis Rams. The talking heads immediately dove into things talking heads dig into: How will he be received by teammates? By coaches? By the media? Will it be a distraction? Can he play at the NFL level? Blah, blah, blah. For me, the biggest moment (without question) was the embrace shared by two gay men, witnessed by (I imagine) millions of Americans. It was an expression of pure joy—this hulking football star, sobbing with bliss and relief, kissing the one he loves. By now, most of us have seen gay embraces, be them on TV or movies or people in our own lives. This, however, was something different—a large, strong, powerful athlete, supposedly the definition of machismo, locking lips with someone of the same sex.

I’m sure many folks watched with disgust. They’re horrified at the thought, and think it’s awful that Sam Bradford and Chris Long and the gang will have to share a shower with Michael Sam. Those people, though, are ignorant, marginalized and (in many cases) old and close to being dead. To them, Michael Sam’s kiss was gross and immoral and Godless.

To me, it was beautiful.

Fucking beautiful.

Michael Sam

Screen Shot 2014-02-09 at 11.36.10 PMMichael Sam is my new favorite football player.

I don’t have a close second.

In case you missed the news, earlier today Sam—a graduating senior at the University of Missouri and an All-American defensive lineman—told the New York Times and ESPN that he is gay. In and of itself, in 2014 that sort of thing isn’t such a huge deal. I have gay friends, you probably have gay friends. Blah, blah, blah. Yawn, yawn, yawn. Yet this isn’t about me, and this isn’t about you. It’s a young man—just 24—preparing to become the first openly gay player in the history of professional football.

That ain’t no joke.

Sam isn’t Jason Collins—at the end of his career, ties already established. He isn’t Greg Louganis or Martina Navratilova—stars in individual sports. No, he’s a kid who’s about to be drafted into the NFL; a kid who said, “To hell with it—I’m done hiding  …” whether his stock crashes or not. Much like Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, the NFL isn’t exactly the land of openmindedness and inclusiveness. Yes, it’s diverse, as far as black-white and Southern-Northern goes. Yes, many of the players reacted to Sam’s announcement by Tweeting positive wishes. Yet, beneath it all, Michael Sam will not have it easy. “Faggot” and “Queer” are common putdowns for those perceived to be weak. Beneath piles—where shadows overtake light and spectators can’t see clearly—knees are hit, ankles and turned, elbows are thrown. Sam will, without question, takes shots others won’t.

He’ll also be the uncomfortable non-secret in locker rooms. Some teammates will avoid him in the showers. There’ll be whispers and chuckles. Religious teammates will damn him a sinner. Maybe to his face, maybe not. But the words, they will speak.

And yet … I get the feeling this man can take it. He’s clearly intelligent and insightful. He braved coming out to his college teammates, and was encouraged by the aftermath. He seems to know he’s a trailblazer; seems comfortable carrying that torch.

I’ve never seen him play, but I expect my son to be wearing his jersey next season.

With pride.