SO! The NFL draft happened last week, and I’m not even gonna lie, apart from laughing at tweets about Johnny Manziel’s late picking and Michael Sam’s being drafted I didn’t pay much attention at all, because my loyalties lie almost exclusively with SEC football and that’s just how that cookie crumbles.
But alas, here I am with some thoughts and some feelings on the latter development from the NFL draft: Michael Sam. When he originally came out, I’ll be honest, I was very, very excited about not only what his example would mean for the young and old LGBT community and LGBT people in sports, but also specifically for the black LGBT community which sometimes lacks visibility and leadership due to a heightened strain of homophobia in the black community. However, this time around, while I’m again very excited about his achievements and supportive of his career, what I have to pull back on is the LGBT community’s (and its allies) maybe…overwillingness? to canonize him as some sort of patron saint for the LGBT cause. When ever I heard the news I remember being excited, but at the same time feeling a way about it…something wasn’t quite right. A quick twitter conversation with a friend explained my ambivalence. Michael Sam has become the first openly gay athlete to be drafted into the NFL…but what now? Am I trying to rain on the Michael Sam parade? Not at all. But I’ll never forget what my father told me after I racked up on scholarships for college in high school: to whom much is given, much is required. I think the adage taken from the Bible and quoted by JFK holds true, not only for myself, but for those people put in Michael Sam’s position. Here’s why.
Due to his EXCELLENT performance in the SEC arena, I don’t think there’s really any doubt that Michael Sam is worthy of his new status as a team member of the St. Louis Rams, but that is strictly based on his athletic talents. To ignore his achievements on the field (which for the most part occurred prior to him publicly coming out) would be straight up foolish. I don’t think those calling the shots in the NFL really even cared that Sam is gay, because his sexuality isn’t going to fill stadium seats. So long as Sam is an able bodied man that can perform up to NFL standards then the NFL will open its arms to him just as they did with African Americans once they figured out how profitable black men could be outside menial labor. The NFL drafting Sam appears to be a show of good faith on THEIR part (that I halfhearted believe, that Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito debacle is still bothering me), but before we can raise Sam as an LGBT sports icon we must first consider what that may require. I can only imagine what the coming out process is like in the world of football. However, exactly how difficult could it be when you’re kicking ass on an SEC football field like it ain’t no thing? I almost feel like his talent overshadows this detail of his life, as it should. Regardless of whether Michael Sam is gay or not (also black or not), he’s going to be respected both in the NFL community and the general public as one dynamic football player. They, players and fans, are going to respect his talent and capital potential more than anything. I think a lot of people are willing to overlook the fact that he’s gay if it’s going to favor their pockets or their sports team and that’s not hot. You see sometimes when a majority group doesn’t want to directly face change or challenge (in this case the social progress of the LGBT community), it’s not uncommon for that group to ignore or overshadow the situation in an attempt to suppress its existence. I’ve already witnessed it on the internet where people are trying to redirect the attention away from his being the first openly gay draft pick back to the fact that he is a great football player. Ultimately, I think what we have here is Sam’s drafting being indicative of tolerance which is absolutely great. However, this is not necessarily showing an increase in total acceptance which is the ideal goal.
Michael Sam hails from the SEC which is easily located in one of the most racist and homophobic regions of the country (Southeastern United States). Having exclusively worked closely with an SEC athletic department and gone to an SEC school myself, I’m no stranger to some of the epithets and slurs that are yelled out in the student sections of arenas and stadiums. I feel that until Sam’s influence can go beyond the “sportsmind” and start actually changing the way people think and feel toward the LGBT community there’s not much to celebrate beyond his coming out. Until people no longer “feel uncomfortable” when Michael Sam kisses his boyfriend on national television in a celebratory moment, a common reaction seen on Twitter and Facebook, I do not think there is much to celebrate. Until people no longer sling bible verses and religious (nay, not Christian) doctrine into Phil Lutzenkirchen’s Twitter mentions for his support of Michael Sam and have accepted that some men love men romantically and some women love women romantically, I cannot find too much to celebrate.
Michael Sam can help make this a reality with his new found celebrity. Emphasis on the “can”, though. I don’t think he has done it yet or that it is necessarily on his agenda. He has shown us that you can be gay and be drafted into the NFL, not that you can be gay and just live a normal life which is much more of a reality and desire for so many more LGBT people. It is his decision and prerogative to go further and progress the LGBT movement and failure to realize this can result in a lot of disappointment if he chooses not to do so. Celebrity can be a fickle thing. I’m reminded of an episode of The Read where Kid Fury and Crissles argued a valid point that celebrities are not in any way obligated to support social causes just because it appears to benefit a community that they belong to or that supports them. As much as I hated to admit it there is unfortunately no real social code (to my knowledge) that requires celebrities play a role in social activism, only our expectations and desires. Look at President Obama. He hasn’t overtly done much of anything to alleviate the plight of black people and other American minorities even though it would certainly benefit his wife’s extended black family. It’s all left up to that person’s personal agenda. This is not to say that Michael Sam won’t be an effective force for the LGBT community. I hope that he will be. It just remains to be seen beyond his coming out.
Keep in mind that the likelihood of there being other (closeted) gay NFL players is very, very strong (just by the sheer math of it) and none of them have felt the urge to come forward and join Sam in the light of being “accepted”. Hopefully this will change soon as Sam’s success thus far begins to lead our society forward to a place of openmindedness and true acceptance.
All in all, I’m a fan. Congrats, Michael and may your continued success on the field and in life also lead to the realization of true equality and acceptance for every man, woman and child regardless of what they believe, how they look and who they love.