Monday, February 10, 2014

Michael Sam is good at football. He'll be just fine.

I was talking with a friend of mine yesterday morning who covers the NFL for ESPN.com when they abruptly curtailed one of our daily conversations with, "I have to go to my top secret meeting now!"

"What's that?" I asked.
"I can't tell you. It's a secret assignment. If I could tell you it would be a nonsecret assignment."
"I don't know, but I've been sworn to secrecy. You might know by the end of the day."
"Oh, so it's like big news that will be on ESPN?"
"Yes. And everywhere else."

This had all escaped my mind and I headed off to work for eight hours and then came home to settle in for a poker game in which I lost $24, which qualifies as a win for me most of the time. A few hours into the game, a friend checked their phone and said, "Um, I think an NFL player just came out." As it turned out, this was not, exactly the case, though Mizzouri defensive end Michael Sam is likely to be the first NFL player to have done that after he is drafted this April, but upon hearing it, the dots all connected in my head and my first thought was, "Oh wow, so that's what they were working on."

My second thought: "He could be a pretty good NFL linebacker. The Giants could use that."

Amazingly, the concern over whether or not Sam will be readily accepted by his NFL peers in the locker room or if he'll have to deal with the stupidity and bigotry the American public is heir to was significantly further down the list, and in a world where Russia seems to be on the defensive for discriminatory laws against homosexuals while it tries to showcase itself to the world during the Winter Olympics, perhaps that's telling.

Michael Sam will be fine. He may or may not end up being a good NFL player, but it seems reasonable to assume that the fact that he is sexually attracted to men rather than women will not be the reason he ends up eventually not playing in the NFL when his career ends. While the reaction has been almost universally positive, there is definitely that stupid vein of thought (and as a thinking man who played football for nine years and knows the NFL exceedingly well, believe it me it is, in fact, utterly stupid) that the NFL is just not ready for the increase in media attention or potential locker room dischord this might cause right now (But we'll be just fine in a decade when no one who currently works in the League is there) because this is a "man's game" built on the artifice of faux masculinity and a facade of manly bravado. Or perhaps more disconcerting, there is the torrent of GMs insisting this will hurt Sam's draft stock even though the GM speaking in question is, in fact, not the bigoted one.

Hogwash.

Michael Sam plays football. He's good at it. The rest of the pieces will fall into place. When I say they will fall into place that is not to imply I'm naive enough to think everything will be hunky dory. There will be detractors and there will be bigots. There will be tension, there will be epithets from idiot fans and there will be more than one instance when the media swarm that is likely to follow Sam around will plaster it all over the web.

But Michael Sam is good at football. In a league where drug users and players with legal blemishes regularly find gainful employment, that Sam is good at football should be the only thing that enters the calculus. As I wrote in a column in college years ago (warning the writing is pretty bad) when former NBA player John Amaechi came out of the closet, that he had an ability to score in basketball (or as I noted from his career statistics, not much of one) is the only important thing to consider. That a swarm of bigotry and media attention might follow shouldn't even become close to secondary because if Sam is strong enough to suffer those slings and arrows then surely his strong, wealthy, heteronormative teammates who will watch much of this sturm und drang from the sideline should be, too.

If GMs are concerned about drafting him because, in the words of Admiral Percy Fitzwallace, it might "disrupt the unit," well, it probably will. Big fucking deal. As Fitzwallace noted seconds later when he compared the concept of homosexuals in the military to racial integration, "The unit got over it. The unit changed."



These units will change, and there is ample evidence to assume not only that the time is right for another gay NFL player (because we are all kidding ourselves if we truly believe Sam is the first), but that perhaps the time has already come and gone. If a sport traditionally hellbent on military-esque discipline isn't ready for open homosexuals when our military already is then it is woefully behind the times and perhaps never will be. In this modern, changing America, homosexual prejudice still exists, but it is hardly so integrated into our modern fabric as to even being close to acceptable by the mainstream, and one can only look at changing perceptions by America's youth for proof.

Take for example my own experience as a counselor at Fairview Lake YMCA Camp in the summer of 2004. Friends of mine know this one well, but to rehash, this was the last of 10 summers I spent at Fairview, six as a camper, one as a CIT and three as a counselor. The summer before had been a rough one, both personally and because the group of children I had were nearly impossible to manage -- and being a mere 17 years old did not help. In 2004, the camp had thrown me a bone and given me both a good group of kids and a good co-counselor, a South African import named Clayton.

On the first night of camp I walked to my cabin with a smile on my face only to be headed off at the pass by Clayton to tell me something about one of our campers, who for the purposes of anonymity we'll call Jack. Jack, 14, had approached Clayton in tears and told him he was gay and never told anyone before. Why he chose this moment or why he chose us to come out to is something I'll never quite understand, but Jack sat down with both of us that night to tell us he was gay and wasn't sure how to behave or how he'd be accepted.

If we're being honest, my first thought at this moment was, "Motherfucker. Why did this have to fall in my lap."

That, of course, was not what I could say to Jack, so instead I told him this: "The most important thing for you to know is that there is nothing wrong with you. You are a normal person, gay or straight. That said, you are also 14, and you are in a cabin full of young boys who are immature and can say things that are hurtful without realizing the significance of what they're saying. I don't think you should necessarily hide your sexual orientation, but you may not want to tell the world about it because I don't want you to have some jerk teenager calling you a faggot when they don't realize what they're saying. Don't be afraid to be yourself, but be careful, too."

I've often wondered over the decade since if this was the right way to handle it. I've wondered if I may have accidentally told a young man who was clearly strong enough to tell someone he trusted who he was to use discretion when it might have hindered his own mental health. Should he have kept it secret? Should he have been as open as he could have been? I've never really been quite sure, but at the time I felt I gave the right advice.

Jack nodded and agreed as if he understood the dangerous waters he was treading. He then told our entire cabin he was gay 24 hours later.

What happened next was truly amazing and why I'm even bothering to rehash this story, but, amazingly, this cabin of eight 14 year olds, immature and prone to dirty infantile humor as they were, was absolutely, 100 percent .... fine with it. They weren't offended, they weren't excited, they weren't anything. They were merely accepting. What amazed me most about this is that were I in their shoes, remembering how I was when I was 14, I can't confidently say I would have been quite as welcoming.

Therein lies the rub. I'm as liberal and open-minded as they come, with multiple gay friends (one of whom I've traveled internationally with) and several friends of any other stripe and hue. And I don't know that I would have been comfortable sleeping in the same room as a gay boy when I was 14.

But they were.

This is a different world we live in now and even those children, just five years younger than I was, had already been raised in a society and with a mindset wherein homosexuality was unexceptional, not praised and not ridiculed because there was nothing to that characteristic that made it any more a significant part of Jack's personality than his hair color. It just was. He just was.

These campers are now older than Michael Sam, and, while I'm not going to argue that all children across the United States are as enlightened as this group of children raised in the liberal northeast was, I think it is pivotal to realize that Sam will be in the NFL playing with other athletes who are this age and younger. A poll last year said gay marriage was now supported by 58% of the U.S. public, with a stunning 81% of those 18-29 supporting the cause. I am now 28 years old. The oldest average age of an NFL roster last season was 27.15 years.

The world is changing and the NFL's political makeup is changing with it. That is the world that Michael Sam will be making his career in. It is not the homophobic militaristic football landscape of Vince Lombardi, of any current head coach or of any current GM, though I imagine Lombardi, too, would only be concerned with Sam's ability to help the Green Bay Packers win. It is not the NFL of 10 years ago that those GMs who might fear change live in.

We are past the time for that watershed moment, and that is why, while the NFL and the world itself will never be rid of bigotry, Michael Sam's world will not be as subjected to it as some of us might fear. Global liberalization and political correctness in a country where the homosexual equality movement has made significant steps each day, mean the steps Sam first takes on an NFL field will just be the next ones. And in this world of growing acceptance they may not end up being all that significant because to many of the people Sam will play with his homosexuality will not be a negative or a positive. It will just be. And that's the way it should be.

The players, like me, will probably not give a damn who he sleeps next to when he comes home, so long as he is a positive asset for whatever defense he plays for. I'd love to have him on the Giants not because I view New York at the vanguard of liberal political causes or because I'd be proud for my team to draft him as an agent of social change -- though I won't lie, I would be proud.

I'd love to have him because the Giants can use some help on defense. And Michael Sam is good at football.

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