What We Talk About When We Talk about Michael Sam

A few generations ago, Michael Sam would not have been permitted to play in the National Football League. Even if we didn’t know about his sexual attractions, the color of his skin would have been sufficient reason not to draft him. Even after the first black players signed in 1946, they were forced to confront stereotypes, slotting (a process in which multiple black players were signed for the same position, thereby making it easy to cut at least one of them,) and a quota system. George Marshall, owner of the Redskins and one of the most infamous racists in sports history, had a segregated team until 1962.

Before Major League Baseball was integrated, a word which in this context means “the best, most talented players were allowed to participate, regardless of the concentration of melanin in their skin,” there were countless debates about whether black men were fit to play the game. There were those who opposed integration, simply because they were “looking out for” the black players. According to popular theory, African-Americans lacked the mental fortitude requisite for hitting a ball with a stick and running around a field, or, in the case of football, running into each other until someone falls down. In other words, they didn’t think black players were tough enough for a “white man’s game.”

In addition, there was concern that constructing a team with diversity could be destructive to locker room culture. See, when things are a certain way, there will always be a group dedicated to keeping it that way, even if the way doesn’t really make sense. That is why NFL coaches still choose to punt on fourth-and-inches, why MLB managers still think sacrifice bunts are helpful, and why your Facebook friends shed a tear every time the website updates its interface.

As a culture, we tend to confuse anything that’s been around for a while as “tradition.” And once something is labeled as a tradition, it becomes that much harder to overcome. The United States has had its share of these traditions. Look no further than the fruitful histories of oppression and inequality, and, in the case of Michael Sam, homophobia.

Please allow me to point out something that’s bothered me a bit about the Michael Sam narrative: Michael Sam is not equal to Jackie Robinson, and comparing the two is counterproductive. Robinson was an excellent role model for anybody aiming to break social constraints down, to be sure, but there is danger comparing Sam in 2014 to Robinson in 1947.

Jackie Robinson lived in the Golden Age of bigotry, a time of vicious, overt racism. What Michael Sam has experienced and will continue to confront is a more subtle form of discrimination. Today we live in a time of muted, passive-aggressive bigotry, with slurs being less popular than more roundabout types of putdowns. So instead of labeling Michael Sam with the f-word, or a certain phrase satirically coined by Chris Kluwe, football will ask him to “prove his manliness”, to “assert his masculinity.” These are all just euphemistic replacements for degrading slurs, but the attitudes behind them haven’t entirely changed, and there’s no doubt that as such they can be just as painful.

The biggest difference between Michael Sam and Jackie Robinson, though, lies in their respective athletic histories at the point of their joining the league. Robinson was a professional baseball player for the Kansas City Monarchs before he signed with the Dodgers. By the time he completed a year in Montreal in preparation for the big leagues, Robinson was already 28. He had already served in the military. He was chosen among a field of dozens and dozens of black players who were as good as or better than their white counterparts in the MLB. In retrospect, he was the perfect choice to break the color barrier, but that was why he was chosen in the first place.

Whereas Robinson was close to a finished product by the time he joined the league, Michael Sam is really not a sure thing. College success does not always translate to professional success. Then again, his college track record was indeed rather extraordinary. During his senior year at Mizzou, in arguably one of the strongest conferences, Sam was voted Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year. He was a first-team All-American defensive lineman. He anchored the defense of a team that went 12-2, was ranked fifth in the country, and won the Cotton Bowl. He has a booming voice and a strong, unforgettable personality, according to his teammates. But being where we are today, we cannot let it be forgotten that, throughout all those impressive athletic achievements, he happened to be attracted to men.

As I mentioned earlier, one of America’s strongest traditions is discriminating against people for various reasons. We used to claim women were mentally inferior as compared to men, yet now women represent more than half of all college students and graduates. At one point, African-Americans were seen as lazy and unintelligent, yet now the leader of the free world is a black man. Not to say that the success of a generation of women or the election of one person were sufficient to erase centuries of sexism and racism, but without a doubt these opinions are no longer nearly as popular. As long as there are ignorant people trying to gain an advantage, they will do their best to ingrain these types of stereotypes on our national consciousness. In the case of Michael Sam, we have the tried and true cliches of football being a “man’s game,” that in order to succeed on the gridiron you need to be a “man’s man.” Well, Michael Sam is literally just that, a man’s man who happens to be quite good at football.

Homophobia is not equal to racism, but they are variations on the same kind of ugliness. They are easy ways of putting people down, and they are both borne of ignorance. Racists and homophobes are not necessarily monsters (although some can be.) They are merely so clouded with bias that they don’t understand how one’s merit is independent from skin color, gender, sexuality, etc. One player personnel assistant, speaking to Sports Illustrated, claimed that drafting a gay player would “chemically imbalance a locker room.” What can we possibly take from this? Is he worried a gay player might ‘turn’ the others, or flirt with them? Does he believe a gay man cannot control his sexual urges in the same way that heterosexual people can? Does he think a team couldn’t have chemistry if one of the players shares the bed with a man instead of a woman every night?

This is the same anonymous assistant who claimed the NFL isn’t ready for a gay player today, but might be “acceptable” in a “decade or two.” His rationale? “To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace.” That’s like a man refusing to hire a woman because his coworkers are openly sexist–perhaps the problem isn’t that a woman couldn’t “handle it,” but that overt sexism, racism, and homophobia are wrong. This is the same kind of distorted logic executives used to “protect” black players decades ago, and it’s equally problematic today.

While we are on the topic of ridiculous anonymous takes on Michael Sam’s story, there is this gem from an NFL scout: “I just know… this is going to drop him down [in the draft]… It’s human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote ‘break that barrier?'” I especially enjoy when people rationalize their discriminatory views by citing “human nature,” the slippery abstraction that means anything you want it to mean. Apparently it’s human nature to place more emphasis on one’s sexual appetite than on one’s strength, charisma, and athletic prowess, all of which Michael Sam has demonstrated.

That being said, there will definitely be some teams that will be hesitant to pursue Michael Sam in the draft. One former GM shared his concern that “every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the media is going to show up,” citing the distraction that the media would inflict on whichever team ends up with Sam. There will surely be some GMs who agree. I only hope those teams don’t make the playoffs for their own good, though, because the media might really cover them if that were the case. And heaven forbid any of them reaches the Super Bowl, one of the craziest media frenzies of the year. Just look at the Dolphins, a poorly-run team that crumbled under the weight of a bullying scandal. Or look at the Patriots, whose star tight end (allegedly) committed multiple murders and was arrested right before training camp. Look at the Seahawks, whose Richard Sherman gave a postgame interview that set off a fiery debate across the entire country. Yet both teams still found success last year, despite the distractions. Well-run teams can handle “distractions”; poorly run teams cannot. It’s really as simple as that.

So what do we talk about when we talk about Michael Sam? Well, we shouldn’t ask whether a gay man can compete at the highest athletic level. Jerry Smith was an All-Pro football player in the 1970s and 1980s. Jason Collins and John Amaechi were respected, tough players in the NBA. Robbie Rogers came out last year, becoming the first openly gay male athlete to compete on a North American professional team (if you aren’t familiar with him, it may be because he’s a soccer player.)

What we’re talking about is a monumental turning point, a time in which football fans, players, and management will have to confront any homophobic attitudes head-on. What we’re talking about is an enormous challenge for a 24-year-old to face (it’s really not fair to ask anybody to represent an entire segment of the population–just ask Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, and Jeremy Lin,) and the hope that the team that drafts Sam is well managed and supportive, just as the Missouri program was. What we’re talking about is a positive step forward, something that future generations will look back at and wonder how in God’s name this all didn’t happen sooner.

What we’re talking about are our attitudes, opinions, stereotypes, misconceptions, delusions, and views, and how as much as we claim sports are just a game, they are really so much more. Here’s to wishing Michael Sam the best over the course of his NFL journey, and to hoping that one day we will not view homosexuality and world-class athleticism as conflicting features. Here’s to hoping that Michael Sam allows us as a country to grow up a little.