When football superstar Michael Sam came out as gay in the New York Times last weekend, much of the country was ready for it.
We started figuring this out when NBA player Jason Collins came out last year, making him the first openly gay male pro athlete ever. Athletes from lower-level leagues come out every day, and especially as we turn our attention to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, we’re more and more attuned to the destructive consequences of systemic homophobia and its effects on the sporting world.
On its cover this week, Sports Illustrated juxtaposed two telling headlines: “America is ready for Michael Sam” in bold font, next to a smaller “Is the NFL ready for Michael Sam?” Different people have different answers, but a few outspoken advocates who know their football are pretty sure that welcoming a gay player shouldn’t have any effect on the game.
For example, former NFL player Donté Stallworth has tweeted his support for Sam and said that any team afraid to “handle the media coverage” he’ll spark is “already a loser.” Dallas sports anchor Dale Hansen made an even bigger statement criticizing the NFL for welcoming accused rapists and criminals, yet potentially shunning a gay player.
The Christian website Charisma News asked some of these questions, too — but they’ve gotten their answers all wrong. Writer Michael Brown is clearly uncomfortable with LGBT people in general, let alone gay athletes, so he doesn’t even know where to start with Michael Sam. He’s got all kinds of questions about how a pro football team could possibly function with a gay player on the field and in practice and (gasp!) in the locker room.
His answers to those questions were pretty terrible, so I thought I’d step in and help him out. (His questions in bold.)
1. What’s the big deal?
Brown says he’s “aware of the significance of this announcement,” but I don’t know if I believe him. He writes:
After all, this is the National Football League, the ultimate testosterone-driven men’s sport, where gay slurs in the locker room are still common. And if the NFL can accept an openly gay player, then “tolerance” has surely triumphed.
Mmm, I see where you’re coming from, but no. The significance here is that the NFL may not accept an openly gay player, even though Sam has proven himself extremely talented, but that he’s coming out in spite of that and therefore setting a new standard. “Tolerance” is flowing freely in some circles (Charisma News readers not included), but the sports world isn’t one of them just yet.
Indeed, Brown is confused about what we’re talking about:
What Sam has declared is, “I’m attracted to other men,” and for this, he has become a national hero. What? This is something to be celebrated? Announcing you are same-sex attracted is a major media event?
Sam has basically said, “There is the possibility that I could be physically or romantically attracted to a coach or teammate,” and for this, he is the new Jackie Robinson.
Again, not really. What Sam has basically said is “I belong to a group of people who face high rates of marginalization in the country where I live, and especially in the sport I play, for no reason other than prejudice.” At a critical point in his career, he said he would rather quiet the rumors than let them overtake him:
“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” said Mr. Sam, who also spoke with ESPN on Sunday. “I just want to own my truth.”
Most importantly, he’s said that being honest and accepting yourself is worth risking your career. It’s an incredibly difficult statement to make, and he will likely continue to face backlash for it. But in a society where gay people are still treated like dirt in a lot of ways and need as many role models as possible to show us that we’re not alone — yeah, it’s a big deal.
2. Is it homophobic to be uncomfortable around an openly gay teammate in the locker room?
Yeah, kind of. The old locker room gay-scare is the oldest trick in the book of keeping gay athletes out of mainstream sports. But it’s not a fair one. It implies that gay people are voracious predators who must have anyone they feast their eyes on, when in fact, we have just as much self-control as straight people. (Maybe more!)
Once they have made their announcement, how can everyone be expected to feel completely comfortable? And with the “bromance” type of close relationships that many players enjoy, would they be as physical and free with a homosexual teammate?
Why do we talk about football players, gay or straight, like they’re monsters who can’t keep their hands off each other? What’s more — why do we act like players have never worked this out before? Sam was out to his team at Mizzou for a year before coming out to the public. He led them to victory at the Cotton Bowl after a 12-2 season. His teammates have nothing but kind words for him. They clearly figured out a solution to the locker room conundrum. So can Sam’s future pro teammates.
And since NFL players are hardly known for their sexual purity — with many notable exceptions — is it homophobic to think that Sam’s hormones might be raging for men the way the other players’ hormones rage for women?
So hold up. You’re worried that the gay player will treat the straight players… exactly the way the straight players treat women?! God forbid! This says less about Sam and more about Brown’s expectation of football players/men in general: if we can’t exhibit self-control around attractive people, how can you?!
TLDR: If you feel uncomfortable, go change in a stall. Nobody’s going to ask you to come back and strip for them. Get over yourself.
3. Was Michael Sam’s announcement selfless or selfish?
Selfless. Brown seems to think that because Sam attracted media attention for his announcement, as he knew he would, the positive influence he could have on other gay athletes and on LGBT culture at large is moot. But there’s more to it.
Looked at from another angle, it was more of a selfish act, and not only in the sense that Sam is suddenly a national celebrity. (As of Feb. 10, a Google search for his name yielded more than 3 million hits. Just one week ago, his numbers would have been a fraction of this.) What I mean is that professional football is all about the team, and the focus must be on making a joint sacrifice in order to win rather than drawing attention to oneself.
But Sam has now put his own desires — wanting to be out and proud — above the good of the team, saying to everyone else, “Whether you’re uncomfortable or not, and whether this helps the team’s synergy or not, this is who I am.”
“The good of the team” has nothing to do with whether or not Sam is gay. If the media covers Sam’s coming out in a distasteful, disrespectful way, could his potential future team get distracted? Perhaps. But as Donté Stallworth said above, it’s on the team and the coach to stay true to the game and maintain focus through “controversy.” Other teams have done it before. Plenty more will have to do it again. And quite frankly, it’s shameful that being gay is “controversial” in the NFL, considering some of the other situations esteemed players have brought upon themselves.
We’ll talk about this below, but Sam had much more to lose than he had to gain by coming out. The NFL isn’t exactly a pro-gay organization, nor is sports culture in general receptive to gay male athletes, and despite what they say, not all press is good press. Is any equipment line or sports drink company falling over themselves to sponsor him? Not exactly. Could this hurt him in the NFL Draft? Let’s see:
4. Has this helped or hurt his chances in the NFL?
Honestly, probably hurt, and this is the only point on which Brown and I can agree. Sam was named the defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), possibly the top league in college football. He had a stellar season at the University of Missouri and he has long been considered a top prospect for the upcoming NFL Draft. Before coming out, he was all but guaranteed to be drafted. Now, if he isn’t, will it be because his skills have changed? Unlikely.
Here’s the comparison Brown makes to out NBA player Jason Collins:
It’s also interesting that the NBA’s Jason Collins, never an outstanding player and admittedly at the end of his career, was not picked up by any NBA team last year after coming out as gay. (Oh, you didn’t read that in the news? How interesting.)
I damn well read that in the news. Maybe it’s because players don’t get picked up on the basis of their identity — only whether or not they know how to play the game. Michael Sam knows how to play the game, and that’s something Brown has failed to acknowledge.
Does this contradict my answer to question 3? On the one hand, yes, since Sam’s announcement could hurt his level of entry into the league; on the other hand, no, since he has decided that the most important thing is that the world knows that he is attracted to the same sex.
How does coming out make this the most important thing in the world? This kind of toxic thinking is fueling homophobia in other avenues around the world, from sports to education to the Boy Scouts and more. A person is more than who they are attracted to. This is insulting.
5. Was it really necessary to come out?
Brown says that “the right to come out of the closet is the most fundamental aspect of gay activism.” Coming out is important, but being treated with respect whether or not you’re out is just as or even more important. Sam didn’t need to come out in order to have a successful career; he needed to come out in order to become the honest player he wanted to be.
However, this is not the correct question to ask. When you ask if it’s “necessary” to come out, you suggest that being gay is something shameful that deserves to be kept secret, or that needs a specific reason to be brought up. Would you ask if it’s “necessary” for an average straight player to talk about their girlfriend publicly? Probably not. But it’s not any more necessary than Michael Sam acknowledging that he’s gay.
Since he is about to be drafted by the NFL, if his sexual and romantic attractions will not be brought into the locker room and will have nothing to do with his football career, why make it an issue now?
Why can’t he just play the game, keep his private life private (as many public figures do), and when his career is over, if he wants to tell the whole world he’s gay, he can do so then?
Instead, he has made his romantic and sexual attractions the dominant sports issue of the day. Is this something to be celebrated?
Why can’t he just play the game? Because there is something fundamentally wrong with being told you have to wait until your career is over to be honest about a part of your life that other players can speak freely about. Telling Sam to wait until his career is over is telling him never to bring a hypothetical boyfriend to see him play, never to answer honestly when media ask him about his personal life (as they will), never to be honest about who he is with his fans. You wouldn’t ask these things of a straight player; it’s unfair to ask them of someone who’s gay.
Michael Brown’s questions imply that there is something fundamentally shameful about being gay. Michael Sam’s coming out is another step forward proving that isn’t true. Even if Charisma News isn’t ready to partake in that conversation, we’re going to have it anyway.