Michael Sam will be a role model
MS is going to be just fine, and so will the NFL team lucky enough to draft the Missouri pass-rusher.
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Sam is riding a wave, not creating one. An overwhelming influx of cash stripped American sports and its superstars of their ability to be revolutionary catalysts for progressive change. The sports world is no longer a leader in the battle for social justice. It’s a follower. Sports are playing catch-up to the rest of American society.
Our debate regarding homosexuality and tolerance has been settled. We’re a nation that is now firmly and permanently pro-gay marriage. Gay people hold prominent positions of power and respect throughout our society. We have high-profile gay elected politicians. Ellen DeGeneres is beloved on TV. Gay characters have prominent roles on our most popular TV shows. Don Lemon reports the news for CNN. Robin Roberts wakes us in the morning on ABC.
Gay non-athletes paved the road to liberation and freedom that Sam will now travel.
I’m not writing this to diminish Sam, the difficulty of his challenge or its importance. I’m writing it to dampen the hysteria. I’m writing it because Sam’s announcement elevated my perspective on this issue, heightened my awareness of sports’ role in our modern society.
Jackie Robinson shook America a decade before Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. Openly gay politicians Harvey Milk, Elaine Noble and Barney Frank beat Sam to our national consciousness by more than four decades.
The sports world no longer promotes change; it reflects it.
With Sam out of the closet to his teammates, coaching staff and a significant percentage of the student body that cared to notice, the University of Missouri football team put together one of the best seasons in school history. The Tigers won 11 regular-season games, played in the SEC championship and finished the season ranked fifth in the country.
Their season was simply confirmation of what we already knew: Working with gay people does not interfere with success. Sam’s individual success — he was the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year in college football’s best conference — confirmed a bit of common sense. Allowing a person to live an un-closeted life frees him to reach his full potential.
Michael Sam isn’t controversial, and neither is his announcement. Most of us have been working with and for openly gay people for a long time. Sam’s NFL teammates will handle his sexuality in much the same fashion as his Missouri teammates. Oh, some NFL player is likely to tweet something stupid and insensitive. A religious hypocrite or two might go full Duck Dynasty and claim America was better off when gay men were repressed and concealed.
That’s ‘Merica. You can’t have the “free” without the “dumb.” It’s called “freedumb.”
If all goes well at the combine, I expect Michael Sam to get drafted in the third or fourth round. Most NFL executives are smart enough to realize the Sam-media circus will subside quickly. He’s not Tim Tebow, a wildly popular college quarterback who tapped into America’s religious zealotry. Sam isn’t even Johnny Manziel, a wildly popular college quarterback who tapped into America’s secular, reality-TV zealotry. Sam is Manti Te’o, a really good college player with an interesting story.
Remember when Te’o was the biggest story in sports? Remember when we thought he would be some major distraction for the team that drafted him? No one cares about Manti Te’o. Most people don’t even know where he plays (San Diego) or how he performed last season (average). If his teammates harassed him about Lennay Kekua, we certainly didn’t hear about it.
It’s a quarterback league. Sam isn’t loud and boastful. He’s not Richard Sherman. Sam is going to fade into the background much the same way Jeremy Lin became a nonstory in the NBA after momentarily sparking Linsanity.
Sam will be a beast on special teams and an effective third-down pass-rusher. He’ll get along with his teammates and opponents. He’ll energize the gay football fan base in the city where he plays and across the country.
His most important contribution will be his subtle and important impact off the field. He’s going to give gay teenage boys a role model, a hero, a boost to their self-esteem. Sam will further redefine how the rest of us perceive gay men’s masculinity. All of this is critical. Sam can push the conversation about gay boys forward. He can give parents, teachers and coaches a talking point to discuss the importance of tolerance. Bullying of gay children is a vast problem in our schools. It contributes to their high suicide-attempt rate.
That’s why it’s significant that Sam shared his story. The cool kids at Missouri accepted Sam for who he is. The same is going to happen in the NFL.