Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Why Michael Sam Does Matter

As everyone and their grandmother is aware by now, an NFL Draft prospect - Michael Sam, formerly of Mizzou - has come out as gay and could become the first athlete in a major American league to be openly gay. While the majority of the response has been positive and supportive, there has been some negativity because…some people just can not help themselves with the usual arguments which are sometimes masked as concerns.

There were responses regarding the locker room culture and, more specifically, the showering dynamic. Jonathan Vilma of the New Orleans Saints went on record in an interview saying that he was afraid of being looked at if a teammate was gay. Here are the facts. 1) Somewhere in a football player’s career, whether grade school, college, or professionally, they were on a team with at least one gay man (open or not)…and they showered with him. Everyone survived the experience. 2) Straight guys look, even though they probably won’t admit it. 3) These guys worrying about being looked at are assuming that this guy finds them attractive, which is really arrogant. Seriously, the people who are afraid of being looked at need to grow up and calm down. It is human nature to observe one’s surroundings and there is no inherently sinister motive behind that.

There were the responses that Michael’s revelation has caused his draft stock to drop, including former Kansas City Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards. In fact, within hours of the story breaking, many people went from saying he’d go in round three or four to round five, six, or lower. The reason they gave was that franchises believe this would be a substantial media distraction. First of all, Michael came out three and a half months before the draft. Second, it will be even longer than that before the next season even starts. The league, the team, the media, and the public have plenty of time to absorb this story before the beginning of the regular season. Cyd Ziegler of Outsports had the best response to the particular fear of a team being distracted. Any organization that can’t handle whatever media coverage they may get and would crumble merely by having an openly gay teammate is already a weak team, and their season is already doomed.

There were the responses which were just plain hateful. A wrestler from Kent State tweeted about being annoyed over ESPN devoting so much airtime to “that fag.” After others on Twitter called the wrestler on his homophobia, he hurled more anti-gay slurs at them too. I don’t think I need to say much about that…Kent State however said plenty by suspending him indefinitely. All I will say is that people like this wrestler are saying more about themselves than they are saying about anyone else, and they are doing so in a very bad way.

And lastly, there were the people asking why this matters, or what is the big deal, or why it is important for this man to announce his sexual orientation. To some people it isn’t a big deal, and that’s perfectly fine, even admirable, that they get that Michael being gay has no bearing on his ability to produce results on the field. These people need to understand that just because it us unimportant to them personally doesn’t mean this event has no importance. They need to look at the big picture. It is important because this is a barrier that has never before been crossed here in the States. It is important because there are people out there who believe that gay men have no place in sports like football and this is an incredible opportunity to change hearts and minds. It is important because somewhere out there is a kid who believes that them being gay means they’ll never be able to reach their Super Bowl dreams because the “weakness of gay men” has been drilled into their mind.

And that is what this is really all about. What we are seeing Michael Sam deal with now is primarily happening because he is the first. By Michael blazing the trail today, he makes it that much easier for those who come after, and we will be that much closer to a day when a professional athlete coming out is not a news-making event.

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