Football player Michael Sam’s statement that he’s gay shouldn’t be news. In the world of sports, though, an announcement like that gets attention because even if being gay isn’t unusual, talking about it is.
Sam told his teammates at Mizzou a while ago and, brace for it, they didn’t freak out and shun him. This group of guys didn’t decide that his love life was more important than what he could do for the team on the field.
Sports is a big deal in American life. It’d be great if we could get equally excited about ending poverty or helping kids read, but that’s not going to happen.
Sports is an opportunity for change, too. It’s a shared experience, a common ground in a world that is increasingly segmented by income, politics, religion, musical tastes and versions of reality that we accept as true.
Against this backdrop, then, it’s not a surprise that Michael Sam’s personal life has taken on such disproportionate importance. Many players and fans have been supportive, but there has also been the sadly unsurprising raft of ignorant and hateful responses.
“I don’t think football is ready for (an openly gay player) just yet,” said an NFL player personnel assistant in an interview with SI.com. “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.”
Heaven forbid that a bigot or two be made uncomfortable.
Now, I’m not what one would call a football fan. I don’t have the extra emotional energy to invest. Big crowds doing things in unison creep me out, as do mascots, and while I do enjoy going to a game on occasion, it’s mostly for the nachos and people-watching. I do like the Green Bay Packers, but it’s because they’re publicly owned and fans wear cheese on their heads.
Partly I’m uncomfortable because players can’t just defeat an opponent but must crush them, violence on and off the field is accepted and players are regarded mainly as moneymakers (their brains and bodies be damned).
While we’re talking about discomfort, I have a few items on my list of things that make me uncomfortable:
- People who use the word “gay” to disparage a person or a thing.
- A father who tries to justify his “old school” views against gay football players by explaining to the New York Times that he took another son to Mexico to lose his virginity. (Chalk one up for heterosexual superiority with that one.)
- Teams that suspend personnel for making anti-Sam remarks — stifling ignorant speech doesn’t make it go away, and I think it’s better to have hateful people reveal themselves.
- I find small-mindedness offensive.
My list goes on — gnats, the smell of cooked cauliflower, country music, people who don’t know that the Beatles will always be better than the Rolling Stones. People who try to tell me or anyone else how to live because their god tells them one thing or another. You get the idea.
People dedicated to equality need to speak up in support of Sam and people who are targeted because of who they are. Steps toward progress and equality are always marked by the hysteria of those whose backward views are being left behind.
We also must not let those who try to disguise discrimination as concern for others’ limited vocabularies off the hook.
If acceptance will come in a “decade or two,” as the anonymous NFL employee said, there’s no reason it shouldn’t begin today.