Monday, February 10, 2014

Michael Sam and momentum

The most important sports news of the weekend was this:  Michael Sam, Missouri defensive end and NFL draft prospect, announced Sunday night that he is gay.

The most significant part of the announcement, arguably, was that Sam had told his Missouri teammates back in August and yet the news had not come out until now, when ESPN, the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and others all reported the story.  Clearly Sam, who led the SEC in sacks, had not negatively affected his Missouri locker room chemistry.  ("But what about the locker room chemistry?" has been a central argument against open homosexuality within football.)

Michael Sam's courage to come out affects him, his future teammates, front office executives, and the NFL as a whole.  What encourages me most is the idea of momentum toward normalcy:  this is another step, following Jason Collins, Wade Davis, Robbie RogersConner Mertens, and others in making the participation of openly gay athletes within professional sports a wholly normal occurrence, thus 1) emboldening closeted athletes, and 2) getting straight athletes accustomed to having gay teammates/opposing players.  These are equally powerful results, and they both work to improve our society.

It was one thing to postulate hypothetical Gay Athlete A and how he/she will be accepted, treated, etc.  Now we get to see it happen; Gay Athlete A has a face and a uniform.  Hypotheticals pale in the face of reality.  Any future teammates who have any questions, any discomforts, and any prejudices can now look Michael Sam in the eye and speak with him.  Personal experience is a heck of an antidote for ignorance and confusion.

I wonder, too, how many closeted gay or bisexual NFL players will seek Sam out, asking him for advice and support.  Tribulations are far easier to face and potentially overcome after a person realizes that they are not alone, and that others have faced (and are still facing) those very same tribulations.  There is an underground community here of football players, some retired, some playing, who do not see the hazard of concussions as their biggest stressor.  And beyond football:  soccer now has Rogers, basketball had Collins -- which male athlete next will be brave enough to step up and announce with pride that he is gay?

(Yes, this has been about male athletes.  Female sports are far different, with openly gay players in the WNBA, women's soccer, tennis, and other leagues. But... just remember that Britney Griner was encouraged to keep quiet about her sexuality at Baylor.)

This is what I mean by momentum.  With every new disclosure and announcement, more players will understand that they do not have to hide part of themselves, especially once they see how welcoming their teammates and the sports landscape will be to them.

Oh, it won't be easy -- there will be bigots, in the locker room, front office, and the stands -- but, heck, there are still tons of racists out there, too, and Jackie Robinson's MLB debut was all the way back in 1947.  You can't let someone else's comfort dictate your own life.  Someone complaining about how uncomfortable seeing "gay behavior" makes them... well, that's a pretty darn inferior discomfort to what it's been like to be homosexual throughout human history:  having to fearfully hide it (and "living a lie") for fear of what happen if the truth was known, getting bullied, getting beaten up, getting killed, getting disowned, and on and on.

(You are fully encouraged to read Rich Juzwiak's "Field Guide to Straightsplaining" on Gawker for straight people's reactions to and instructions for gay people on what to do and how to act.)

Michael Sam, bless him, needs no instruction from anyone else.  He's out, he's confident, he's a darn good pass-rusher, he's going to play in the NFL.  He's not Jackie Robinson... but in 50 years, he could be seen as just as important in his own way.

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