Note: This blog entry was originally posted in my personal blog, “A Cornucopia of Michael.”
I was recently reading the comments on a post about Michael Sam, the University of Missouri defensive end expected to be a top draft choice in the NFL and who recently came out as gay. One of the comments stood out to me in particular, because it might be read (and said) by many as a sign of progress and acceptance. The individual responded “Really? Who the hell cares about athlete’s [sic] sexual orientation?” While I think the general message he is trying to convey is that sexual orientation should not affect the way we rate or view an athlete, the problem lies in that it completely ignores the historical situation in which such an event as this occurs. The truth of the matter is that a LOT of people care about an athlete’s sexual orientation, as can be seen in the comments of mangers and players in a recent Sports Illustrated article on the subject. A few of the more bold statements found in the article:
“This is going to drop him down,” a veteran NFL scout said in the SI.com article. “There’s no question about it. It’s human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote ‘break that barrier?’”
An assistant head coach said in the SI.com article that coming out right now was “not a smart move” because it “legitimately affects [his] potential earnings.”
“I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet. In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”
Clearly, all of these quotes are from people who care about an athlete’s sexual orientation. What strikes me about most of these comments is how much they are based in the argument that we should live our lives and make our decisions based on how other people might react to us. If there are players who are uncomfortable with a gay man being in the locker room with them, it is not that player who has a problem, it is the man who is gay and had to screw it all up by coming out of the closet.
All of these comments are also based in cowardice. To say that Sam will be dropped lower in the draft because a team doesn’t want to “break that barrier” is not only sad, it’s shameful. Putting aside the BS statement about human nature (there are very few things that we can safely call ‘human nature,’ but that’s a post for another day), the fact that no one sees a problem with a team NOT wanting to break that barrier is pathetic. It’s putting politics above humanity, and shows a distinct lack of foresight, as that team will be remembered in the future as the team brave enough to break that barrier. No one looks back on the Brooklyn Dodgers and says “how sad that they were willing to stand up for what was right and allow the first African-American man to play in Major League Baseball.” While it is Jackie Robinson, rightly so, who is remembered for his courage and strength, the Brooklyn Dodgers also deserve a nod for being willing to take a chance. The same will be true for Michael Sam, and the team that drafts him. I think of a quote from singer-songwriter Derek Webb, from his song “Black Eye”: ”Time looks the same at the ones who hate and the ones that do nothing.” Time will not look fondly on those who rejected a player because of his sexual orientation, and then tried to justify it any way they could.
The final quote I listed is perhaps the saddest. The argument that a group or organization isn’t ready to advance “just yet” is the tactic of choice for those who wish to delay progress indefinitely, or at least want to delay it until someone braver comes along who is willing to do the right thing. The insinuation that football is still a “man’s-man” game is also thoroughly insulting to gay men everywhere, especially when followed by the statement that calling somebody a fag (i’m assuming this is the deleted gay slur) is still commonplace, implying a clear connection between the two. Gay men, this individual is saying, cannot be manly-men who are able to keep up with the heterosexual “men’s-men” of the NFL. While I have major issues with the way that we culturally define manhood, it is ridiculous to say that all gay men are incapable of meeting the same standards of the heterosexual men in the NFL.
A final thought about “who cares about an athlete’s sexual orientation?” There is one very important group that cares: the gay community, especially gay youth, who have so few role models to look up to, especially in the world of sports. The fact that Michael Sam is a man of color is also immensely important for gay youth of color, who have even fewer role models than white youth. Whether his actions in the NFL continue to make him worthy of being a role model remain to be seen, but his courage in coming out to the world before being drafted will serve as an inspiration for thousands of gay youth struggling to simply come out to themselves and those around them.
An additional and related question to “who cares about an athlete’s sexual orientation” is another that is frequently heard: ”why do we even need to talk about an athlete’s sexual orientation? It doesn’t matter what you do in the privacy of your home when you are on the field.” Sure, but what about when a player talks about his wife and kids? Or when a player is seen on a date with a famous actress or model or musician, and it’s all over the gossip magazines? Like it or not, this is talking about that player’s sexual orientation, but we don’t see it that way, because that is how privilege works. Heterosexuality is normal and natural, and therefore a man talking about his wife or dating a woman is simply par for the course. If a man talks about his husband or dating a man, he is forced , by that very action that everyone else takes for granted, to come out as gay.
I wanted to address this question briefly, as well, as it is something that is frequently brought up when this subject is discussed.