missouri

When LeRoy takes back the ball

New uniforms, modeled by players who need to shut up and just run the ball and be happy.

New uniforms, modeled by players who need to shut up and just run the ball and be happy.

Back in the 1960s, when southern high schools were beginning to integrate, there was a common expression used to describe gradual white acceptance—and ultimate embracing—of black faces on their football rosters: “Just give LeRoy the ball.”

Translation: Yeah, technically it sucks. But LeRoy is a big ol’ nigger who run s a 4.4 40 and can get us an extra three or four wins. So let’s smile, shut up and hand him the football. And as long as he doesn’t date our daughters or think himself a real part of our community, all should be OK.

Decades have passed. LeRoy is no longer LeRoy. At least not in the conventional sense of the phrase. Now he has a name. He’s Jim. Bob. Malik. Steve. Ellis. Jeff. Casey. Emmett. Ray. Integration took hold of America long ago, and now schools everywhere feature big, strong, fast black football players who run 4.4 40s and elicit cheers from the crowds. Generally (but not always), whites still prefer they stay far away from their daughters. But they definitely want them on their college football teams. No doubt.

Here, however, is what they don’t want: Complaining. Whining. Anger. Conditions. LeRoy (or whatever you wanna call him in 2015) should be damn happy [FILL IN THE BLANK] University removed him from the ghetto of [FILL IN THE BLANK CITY] to allow him to play football and receive a valued four-year education. He should be thankful, gracious, humbled by the salvation granted upon him by (largely) white America. It’s a gift for the chosen. And if the majority of the gift givers (coaches, university boards, boosters) vote for candidates who strongly oppose funding the social welfare programs that help inner-city communities grow and thrive, well … hey. Life isn’t perfect. LeRoy—or whatever his name is—should just keep his trap shut, eat to his heart’s content at the nearby dining hall (it’s BBQ night!) and give us 30 carries for 150 yards and two touchdowns against LSU. Education? Take it if you want it. Or don’t. Won’t really matter in 20 years, when your knees are gone and you’re storing boxes in a Target warehouse.

•••

I am writing this shortly after learning that Tim Wolfe, the University of Missouri president, has stepped down after the African-American members of the school’s football team threatened to boycott practice and an upcoming game were he to remain in power. The black Tigers were responding to a fellow student’s hunger strike—as CBS’ Jerry Hinnen wrote, “part of a series of student protests over racially charged campus incidents and what the students view as an inadequate response from Wolfe.”

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Now, I don’t know if the players are right or wrong in cause. I truly don’t. Hell, I’m not sure there is a definitive right or wrong. Did Wolfe need to quit? Could something have been salvaged? Was he a bad guy, or a good guy caught in a sticky situation? Did he make mistakes, or were mistakes made around him? Or both? Or neither? Hard to say, even after reading myriad accounts of the past few days.

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What I’m bothered by, however, is the visceral anger directed toward Missouri’s LeRoys African-American players, who—if you listen to (largely) conservative America—should shut the fuck up, mind their business and play football. Not all that long ago, these same people lauded Kim Davis in her courageous fight against gay marriage in Kentucky. She was strong-willed and righteous and determined. She was willing to go to jail to stand up for what she believed in, even if that meant braking the laws of the land. God bless America and God bless Kim Davis, standing up for persecuted white Christians everywhere! Amen!

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Now, however, we have different people partaking in a fight. They’re seemingly strong-willed and (one could certainly debate) righteous and determined. They also happen to be young, which, you would think, would be a celebrated fact. Right or left, middle-aged or senior citizens, a common refrain among Americans over the age of 30 is that “young people today” don’t care. They’re all about iPhones and texting and the Kardashians and 100 degrees of varying trivial nonsense. “Back in the day …” the story goes, people cared.

Well, the University of Missouri football players seem to care. They stood up, took an action, gained their desired outcome. Whether you agree or disagree with the point is, well, pointless. The call to action should be applauded.

You, however, don’t see it that way.

You see a bunch of LeRoys.

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.