Michael Sam’s magic moment has left America divided, making the masses uncomfortable for many reasons, though much of it has nothing to do with Michael Sam.
We have the ignorant folks, who still think it’s cute to belch homophobic remarks. On the other end, we have the self-righteous sort, who pretend they weren’t reared in some form of homophobia. And we have the rest, which probably make up most Americans, who want to do and say the right thing but aren’t sure what that is. It all depends on where you’re from, whom you’re from, and when you came from them.
Sam did nothing wrong, of course; he merely held a mirror up to us and our old-world ethos. You can argue his place in history, but there’s no doubt he’s a brave man, coming out while entering the most masculine crucible in pro sports.
But aside from his courage and composure, Sam has made some interesting choices since he declared for the NFL Draft. If Sam were simply a football player who wanted to quietly assimilate into the league, then why the camera on him when he was drafted?
Were there cameras mounted inside the homes of other 7th-rounders? Sam was drafted in a perilous place, where players live on the NFL margins, fighting for their football lives. There is no guarantee that Michael Sam will be a St. Louis Ram this fall. In fact, most athletes drafted in his place don’t make their team.
Then there was the kiss. And that’s where much of the hypocrisy begins. Everyone in front of a camera or microphone was quick to ask their colleagues what they thought of it. Were you uncomfortable? What about you? Which probably means the person asking the question was least comfortable of all.
And what if you were caught off guard? What if you winced? What if you weren’t sure what to think? Are you allowed to say so? And was this Sam’s way of branding himself strictly as a football player?
Then Sam agreed to do a documentary with Oprah Winfrey, not exactly a stealth move for someone who wants to slide into pro football unnoticed. Teams are ornery enough about “Hard Knocks,” which is pretty much a sports entree with a side order of dysfunction.
But Sam will have every moment of his professional and personal life sprawled out before America, and he asked for it. The fact that Oprah’s cameras won’t be allowed in the Rams’ facilities doesn’t make it much less of a distraction. Myriad Rams will be asked what they think about a player they barely know or maybe haven’t even met.
So is it only about football, as Sam so ardently declared? Or is it about his place as a pioneer, his every move archived for the history books? Is this about playing for the Rams or about being the first openly gay player to play in the NFL? If you take a wide lens to his actions, you can see Sam is conflicted, at least in terms of his role in this process.
Again, this isn’t a matter of Sam’s rights as a person. But if the goal is to seamlessly blend into the world of pro football, with no regard to matters beyond his ability to play football, then why shine a blinding light on them?
Sam deserves the same chance to make the Rams as anyone. But will he? Will Sam make the team under the same rules as everyone else? Can the Rams look solely at his gridiron wares? Was he drafted because he’s gay? Despite the fact he’s gay? Or was no consideration given?
There have already been denounced remarks from NFL players, Tweets sprouted and then silenced. It’s easy to say everyone in the locker room will see him as just another football player. But do you really believe that?
And what if he’s not good enough to make the team? Will the Rams be scared to cut him for fear of reprisal? The paradox of breaking barriers is the reality that though you are praised for hiring someone who never got a chance, you could be smeared for firing them.
Not too long ago, Kobe Bryant was fined by the NBA for saying a gay slur. Does that necessarily make Bryant a bigot? No. But it does speak to the entrenched, rustic lexicon of our youth.
We can’t have an honest dialogue about any social issue unless we’re allowed to take an honest account of our biases. As long as we are willing to listen and change then we shouldn’t be bashed for the archaic worldview we bring to the table.
Charles Barkley, the NBA’s goofball laureate, who is sneaky smart on social issues, said that it’s not against the law to be a racist. He’s right. Taking his assertion a step farther, it’s not illegal to be homophobic, as long as your views don’t impede the progress of the people you loathe.
But we wouldn’t need to make these distinctions if we could voice our views in the first place, with a willingness to change them, earnestly and honestly. You can see so many pundits squirm in their seats while discussing Michael Sam, pausing, stuttering, and murmuring their way to something sounding profound.
That says a lot more about us than it does about Michael Sam. But perhaps Sam isn’t helping his cause, personally or professionally, by insisting his private life become so public.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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