On Michael Sam, Coming Out, and Being a Big Deal


First, let’s get one thing out of the way. Michael Sam is not the first gay NFL player. He’s the first player to come out before being drafted, and if all goes well, he’ll be the first out player to take the field. When Michael Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round of the NFL draft, he cried. He wasn’t the only player to cry, of course, but those big ugly sobs had historical significance. He then reached over and kissed his boyfriend. ESPN didn’t pull away, an act itself that carried historical significance.

As a gay man and sports fan, I followed this NFL draft with particular attention, and not just to see how inscrutable Chip Kelly’s selection process would be. It was no secret that when Michael Sam publicly came out, of his own volition, before this draft that his prospects precipitously sunk. Despite his bona fides on paper like SEC Defensive Player of the Year, his small physical stature, average speed, and poor performance at the NFL Combine made his draft prospects less than certain. Even with the support from a number of current NFL players who applauded his courage, anonymous NFL GM’s confirmed that his coming out added to that uncertainty.

The clock ticked, and it looked like the NFL who claimed to be ready to welcome an out gay player might not have the balls to do so after all. My heart sank watching Sam get passed over, round after round. Anticipating the ugly media reaction that would occur if he weren’t drafted, I tweeted something to the effect of “Michael Sam *needs* to be drafted, if not only for his talent, then to avoid media blowback that it’s a step backwards for gay rights. To be clear: if Michael Sam isn’t drafted, it’s a setback for NFL integrity, not gay equality.” I was met with reactions I’ve come to expect.

“so you are saying that his orientation is far more important that his ability to play pro ball? Why is sexuality such a big deal?”

 

and

“This is such a ridiculous statement.What does playing in NFL have to do with gay equality?If he is qualified,they will pick him”

 

It’s not a big deal that Michael Sam is gay; what matters is that he came out. It matters even more that he came out publicly to what could be the detriment of his career and personal safety. That he opened himself up to great risk is the real story here. He’s the first person in this position, and he’s going to make it easier for the next person who chooses his path. He’s a pioneer, and that is a big deal. Eventually the path Sam forged will be well worn, and this conversation won’t be necessary. Until then, it is.

It’s possible that Sam hired media specialists who thought the best way to assure him of coverage that would push him into the NFL was to fuel a personal narrative with a coming out story. Even if that cynical view held water, anyone who has actually come out would laugh at that assertion. Coming out, even on a small stage, is fraught with peril when you’re not in a supportive situation.

Of course, his sexual orientation is not more important than his ability to play football, but it’s naïve to think that his sexuality had nothing to do with whether he would have been given the right to play. There are a lot of complicated reasons that Michael Sam was picked 249th overall in the NFL Draft. We can speculate that most were valid and reflected the needs of the teams, but it’s unwise to think that some weren’t motivated by homophobia and that his sexuality wasn’t an inhibitor to Sam’s draft status.

Wouldn’t it be great if sexuality had nothing to do with it? Yes! However, we don’t live in a merit-based vacuum. Fun fact: You can still be fired for being gay in 29 states, and Missouri is one of them. Sexuality is still a big deal. Pioneers like Sam will make it less of a big deal.

“so take him to avoid #GayDrama? Why can’t he keep it to himself?”

 

I love when people go out of their way to express that they just don’t care if someone comes out. It’s his own business! We don’t care! Why are they always rubbing it in our faces?!

First, if anything was rubbed in our faces over the course of the NFL Draft, it was Johnny Manziel’s sad face. There couldn’t have been any more over the top Manziel coverage if his team convened in the missing Malaysian plane.

Second, why should he keep it to himself? The kinder side of the double edged sword of coming out, publicly or privately, is the personal freedom that accompanies it. Even facing great risk head on, a heavy weight is lifted from your shoulders. That Sam’s coming out may open up a dialogue about gays and make it a welcomed topic in the mainstream is merely a bonus. First and foremost, he’s self-actualizing and living his best life.

Those of you who say “Who Cares?” to famous people coming out, thank you! Sincerely. This is where we want to arrive, but we’re not there yet. Every day, rights of the LGBT community are being legislated by straight majorities, hate crimes are being committed, and gay children are being kicked out of their homes. The best way for people to become more sympathetic to gay issues is to expose them to gay people in real life or in media. Every time someone comes out, others have to deal with the real-life implications of their own homophobia. Michael Sam knows this.

To those straight people who don’t want to hear others’ coming out business, have you considered the possibility that Michael Sam and others like him aren’t coming out publicly for YOU? They may be coming out for the queer kids who are five time more likely to commit suicide than their peers. They may be coming out for that gay athlete who may stick around at practice instead of quitting now that doors have been opened for him or her. They may be coming out for anyone who needs a courageous role model.

People fear what they don’t know. Michael Sam’s coming out is an opportunity to get to know him and a community. For some it will be the first chance to hear about the life of a gay man. Don’t pass that up!

“Shut up no it’s not faggot lover”

 

Ignore for a moment the third-grade reading level syntax and grammar, and see that this response, while not the most nuanced, is probably the most illustrative of why Michael Sam’s being drafted is important.

The word faggot itself is so frustrating. It’s a weaponized word, steeped in hate, for which there’s no proper comeback. What am I supposed to do, shake my fist at my computer screen and yell, “Darn you, person of heteronormative privilege?!” Harvey Milk said that if he turned around every time he was called a faggot, he’d have to learn how to walk backwards.

So usually when I’m called a faggot on social media, I know I’m doing something right. When I see the word pop up in my mentions now, it still stings at first. But as Michael Sam will soon find out, if he doesn’t know already, you can treat the word like pebbles that accumulate in your pocket and will weigh you down as you cross the river or wear them as a badges of honor.

The day Michael Sam was drafted, I was called a faggot over 10 times on twitter, and I was just an interested bystander. If you really want to be shocked, check out some of the things our less enlightened brethren said about Sam himself. Or maybe you won’t be shocked. I wasn’t.

And I doubt Michael Sam is shocked anymore about anything thrown his way. He’s going to continue to be called faggot and worse. Even if Sam makes the team, turns out to be the NFL’s best defensive player, and lives an upstanding life carefully curated to others’ standards, he still won’t convince everybody that being gay is natural or appropriate. He may not be embraced by his teammates, or worse, he’ll be the victim of off-the-field violence.

The most he’ll ever be able to hope for is the chance to get his naysayers to revisit their moral or religious beliefs or reconsider their narrow definition of masculinity. In a way he’s already succeeded because we’re having a conversation about it. He has said numerous times in interviews that all he really wants to do is play football.

My hope for him is that he’s successful in what he loves to do. I guess that’s my own brand of gay drama. I want his opportunities to play to match the high hopes I have for him. I want to see Michael Sam succeed and have a long career. I want him to play with righteous anger when he thinks about the people who don’t believe in him. I want him draw inspiration every time he’s called a faggot – every time anyone is called a faggot. I want that because I think he’s so brave. And because I know now his courage won’t be enough. And because I kind of know how he feels.

One of the most appealing parts of football is the narrative built around it that it’s a test of manhood. The victors are the ones who withstand the most pain while inflicting more of it on their opponents. The vanquished are knocked down to the ground. In football, manliness is but another a way of keeping score. Whether Michael Sam plays well enough to recreate his college success or not, he’s already redefined how we’ll come to view the measure of a man in football.