“I’m a college graduate… I’m African-American… and I’m gay!” – Michael Sam
With those words, an undersized defensive end for the Missouri Tigers, and reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, stepped out of the closet and forced us all to tackle this subject in the open field. In 2014, should their still be a closet to come out of to begin with? Some that want to remain politically correct will say it’s not an issue, while others say it could be a big problem for the team that drafts the senior DE, and projected third or fourth rounder. Either way, we’re almost certain to have the first openly-gay athlete drafted into the National Football League.
Where there are firsts, there can be an uneasiness… trepidation. This is understandable. I’m sure the team was made aware, and no matter how accepting they were of it, that very first time Jackie Robinson’s new teammates saw him in the dugout sporting his brand new Brooklyn Dodgers uniform… I’m pretty sure even his staunchest supporter felt a lump in his throat. Just imagine how Jackie felt. Some find the comparison of Michael Sam’s situation to that of Jackie Robinson’s to be offensive, and that I understand, but don’t agree with. Some don’t believe words like “courageous” or “brave” should be used to describe Sam’s actions, while I think it took amazing bravery and some real courage to expose himself to the scrutiny.
Times have changed, and for the gay community, Sam’s move to be open about his sexuality will be looked at as groundbreaking. In this small way, I see the two situations are similar… or at least, I can empathize. Maybe a comparison to Robbie Rogers, of the MLS, or Jason Collins, of the NBA (both openly gay athletes), would make those that have a problem with the Robinson comparison more comfortable.
Sports gives us opportunity at times to view society through the prism of a locker room. These rooms are usually filled with a mix of different ideals, backgrounds, races, cultures and religions. A group, tasked with a shared goal, working through their differences to achieve an ultimate glory. In society we don’t all get along, so how would we expect everyone in a locker room to do what we cannot? There is a level of tolerance, and acceptance, which allows this social circle to function. In the end, if Sam can hold his own on the gridiron, he’ll quickly earn fans inside and outside the locker room. If Sam can help a team win, it will be easier for those around to ignore what may bother them about the man, and high-five the player.
The hardest hurdle for Michael Sam to traverse in my opinion will be the religious angle. We see the expressions of faith during games: a show of faith during gameplay, team prayer circles postgame, etc. Most faiths are unforgiving when it comes to homosexuality, calling it a sin. I’m pretty sure there are other sins being committed by players, so why would teammates chose to single out sexuality anyway? I’m sure we can find skeletons in the closets of many players, at least Michael Sam let us take a peek into his. With a Pastor for a stepfather, and a mother who assisted him in the establishment of a church which started in my living room, I’m very sensitive to the religious angle of this story. How will those that consider homosexuality a sin interact with, play with, and support a gay teammate?
Even with my beliefs, I am fully accepting of my gay friends and wish them nothing but the best in life and love. The book I follow also reminds me not to judge (that there is one judge)… so I don’t! Sometimes, I wish I could hit the “update app” button on the Holy Bible and see how it would incorporate some of what we deal with on a daily basis in today’s world.
It’s not as easy to tell a player to forget his/her religion. Just ask Tim Tebow how he dealt with criticism by those that thought he was too forward with his beliefs, and took every opportunity to express his faith. I’m not saying Sam will take every chance he gets in front of a microphone to advocate gay rights. Maybe he does and maybe he doesn’t. He’ll probably deal with the questions as they’re asked, sorta like Doug Williams did while fielding questions before Super Bowl XXII. Maybe one day a gay player will declare for the NFL Draft, and everyone treats it like they did when Russell Wilson won Super Bowl XLVIII… just another day.
-Joseph Haas, HaasStyleInterpretations.com
Join the conversation on Twitter @JerseyHaas or send me an e-mail JosephHaasNFL@Gmail.com. You can also find me covering the New York Jets at HCoftheNYJ.com and Saturdays on the Green & White Show.