It’s en vogue nowadays to not be impressed with or believe in anything, ever. Cynicism and skepticism stand as society’s modi operandi. So it’s not surprising when, hours after University of Missouri football star Michael Sam came out as homosexual and edified himself as the soon-to-be first openly gay professional athlete in major sports, people instantly began to dismiss the idea as an unremarkable publicity stunt.
This was, clearly, an orchestration meant to enhance Sam’s profile leading up to the NFL draft in April; a ploy to take the focus off his football and onto other, more sensational aspects of his life.
Sports have long been a lightening rod for human rights advancement in America. It was professional sport that integrated first, not society. Women found their way onto baseball mounds and tennis courts long before voting booths and board rooms. Sports reveal, not suppress, our capacity for humanity and understanding. It’s their single greatest aspect: the ability to unify.
So it’s disappointing how behind the times sports have been on the gay rights front. Just last week, Saints linebacker Johnathan Vilma mentioned in a NFL Network segment on locker room culture how he felt a gay NFL player wouldn’t be fully accepted in the NFL today. An NFL scout mentioned how, despite societal progress, some locker rooms are still “stuck in the 50's.” There isn’t one openly gay man currently playing in any of the big four (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) sports leagues in America. This is significant and troubling.
Alongside music, sports have the biggest hold on our nation’s collective psyche. This year’s Super Bowl was the most watched event in the history of television (111 million viewers). Nine of the 10 most watched television broadcasts of 2013 came from the NFL. Drake can influence a teen’s spending habits more effectively than Warren Buffet. Odds are Beyonce means more to feminism to the average teenage girl than Gloria Steinham. Entertainers move, and we watch. They act, and we emulate. They reveal, and we learn. They are our role models.
And as society continues to work on normalizing and accepting the many forms of diversity, it is imperative that our role models do the same.
David Kopay, John Amaechi, and Bill Bean are all pioneers, but they aren’t recognizable. Ellen DeGeneres is recognizable. Robin Roberts is recognizable. Michael Sam is recognizable.
To politicize Sam’s coming out as just another publicity stunt is to simultaneously ignore the precious aspects that make it special, important, and authentic.
For starters, Sam is a star right now. A projected early rounds pick by many NFL draft analysts, he is a formidable All-American pass rushing beast; one many NFL teams are going to give some thought come draft day.
His story is one of triumph. The seventh of 8 kids, three of his siblings are dead, and two are in prison. He’s the first in his family to go to college. Yet even more taxing than the upbringing he overcame is his familial relationship, namely with his father.
“I’m old school,” Michael Sam Sr. told The New York Times in a recent interview. “I’m a man-and-a-woman type of guy.”
Michael, who’s admitted he’s closer with friends than family, spent a lot of his time growing up away from his home, going so far as having his own bedroom at a high school friend’s house, where religious and patriarchal dogma wasn’t as suffocating.
Sam told his father he was gay via text, just days before the world found out (Sam’s friends and teammates on the other hand, and many others, had known for as long as two years prior).
Receiving the news broke Sam Sr. He abruptly left a dinner engagement and went to the bar.
“Deacon Jones is turning over in his grave,” he told the Times, referencing the notoriously tough NFL defensive star, a quintessential “man’s man.” Not necessarily startling words from a man who drove his son (Michael’s older brother) to Mexico to lose his virginity.
But this is reality. Even with the strides we’ve made, a lot of children — namely African American ones, are struggling to find ways to come to terms with their truths. Heteronormative constraints — from family, friends and society, still paralyze and intimidate. Dogma is incredible. This is why Michael Sam is vital.
As a young, ascendant star in the most visible and lucrative entertainment organization in America, Sam’s revelation has a weight and gravitas that Jason Collins (his most similar ally) could only hope for. As a star athlete on the gridiron — a longtime symbol of American machismo and manhood, Sam is inspiring and connecting with an entire faction of people who, until Monday, truly had no relevant advocates.
Whether many want to admit it or not, sexual equality has taken a stance alongside racial equality in our fight for human rights. This makes Michael Sam not dissimilar from Jackie Robinson. He is young, black, and breaking down a formidable barrier via the medium we watch, respect, and learn from the most.
Oh yea, and he’s a hell of a football player.
This matters, people. This is huge.