|Posted on May 12, 2014 at 8:20 PM|
By Dennis Stone
Another milestone was reached on Saturday when Michael Sam was selected by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round of the National Football League draft. He therefore becomes the first openly gay professional football player (American football, that is). The NFL is one of the most notoriously super-macho bastions of "traditional" masculinity in the world, and Michael Sam is smashing a significant barrier. There have been other gay NFL players through the years, and a few have come out after their careers ended (including Esera Tuaolo from my hometown Minnesota Vikings). But no one has dared to face the historical homophobia that has permeated football locker rooms until Michael Sam came along.
The drafting of Michael Sam is revolutionary, but it was the reaction to his drafting and to the kiss he shared with his boyfriend on live national television that is the really good news, and that tells us how far we've come as a society.
Leading up to the draft there was real concern as to whether he would be drafted. There were two reasons for that concern. One was whether teams would shy away from the "distractions" and media scrutiny that would attend the first gay NFL player. At its core the NFL is remarkably conservative in multiple ways, run by people who abhor controversy and anything that distracts from a single-minded focus on football. I'm sure there is some actual homophobia, but in my opinion that is very much secondary to the distaste for distraction from the "prime directive" of winning games.
There was and is a second problem with Sam's hopes for being drafted and for having success in the league. His body and his game are simply not suited for the NFL. He was a star in college at Missouri, and last year was named as the Co-Defensive Player Of the Year in the Southeast Conference. But he is too small to play defensive end in the NFL, where every player was a college star, and he is too slow to play linebacker. He's what the scouts call a "tweener," the type of player who rarely succeeds in the NFL. As a league executive said, "It's a tough fit when you're short and slow and a try-hard overachiever. That's the issue." To buttress those concerns, Sam did poorly at the Combine athletic tests, ranking near the bottom for players at his position.
My personal guess is that he would have been drafted earlier had he not come out, but not dramatically earlier. His limitations are real. But he did get drafted, and that is much more important than exactly where he was drafted. And so he will go to training camp as the first professional NFL player. Now it's up to him to perform well enough to make the team and smash another barrier by being the first out gay player to play in a regular season game.
I have been fascinated by the reaction to Michael Sam being drafted. I don't think we in the gay community are adequately appreciating that reaction. I have heard literally NO negative reaction from any quarter of the media. EVERYONE is supportive. To say anything even remotely negative about Sam or gay athletes in general is utterly unacceptable. I have heard a large number of discussions about Sam on multiple media outlets. These sports announcers, many of whom played college or professional athletics, talk about Sam in a way that just takes it for granted that Sam should be supported. Think back ten years, and imagine what the reaction would have been in the sports world and in society in general.
ESPN aired live video from an NFL draft party attended by Sam and his boyfriend Vito Cammisano, and when Sam was drafted he and Vito shared an emotional kiss. ESPN did not shy away at all, as other media outlets have often been accused of doing when two men kiss. Photos of the kiss have been published everywhere. While even the broadcast kiss was supported by almost all media sources, some in the rest of the sports world had issues with it. Former player Derrick Ward tweeted this: "I'm sorry but that Michael Sam is no bueno for doing that on national tv. Man U got little kids lookin at the draft. I can't believe ESPN even allowed that to happen." Current Miami Dolphins player Don Jones tweeted his disapproval, calling the kiss "horrible."
But here's where it gets interesting. The Miami Dolphins made it clear that they would not accept intolerance from their players. They immediately fined Jones, prohibited him from attending team activities, and mandated a course of sensitivity training. Jones deleted his tweets and issued what sounded like a genuine apology. Said his team: "We met with Don today about respect, discrimination and judgment. These comments are not consistent with the values and standards of our program."
As I said before, think back to where we were a few years ago. The gay issue was highly contentious in sports and in society in general. Today a football player gets fined and suspended for expressing personal disapproval of a televised gay kiss. (And gay people are getting married in Arkansas! That's right, Arkansas!) There is way too little celebrating going on in the gay community these days. Yes, there is still a long way to go. We can't even get ENDA passed, for goodness sake. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't celebrate the wonderful things that are happening. That doesn't mean we can't recognize that gay equality is coming, and coming sooner than we could have dreamed a few years ago. That doesn't mean it's wrong to see the good things that are happening as outweighing the hurdles that still need to be overcome.
Now we need to take the next step in the athletic world. We need to get to where Michael Sam is just a football player, not "the gay football player." We need to get to where an athlete coming out is not a national story. It's possible we'll never get to the point where being gay in public life isn't some kind of news. After all, being gay will always be very different from the "norm," it will always set one apart from the majority of his or her contemporaries. And since sex and relationships are perhaps the most important part of life, having that difference will always be "news" on some level. But we need to get to where that news is a ho-hum sort of thing, and where being gay is a minor part of one's public perception. Michael Sam's coming out, his drafting, and his professional career is an important step in that direction.