The revelation by Mizzou gridiron standout Michael Sam represents a sea-change in American history. So why are so many people resistant?
In 42, last year’s film about Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and the decision by Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey’s (Harrison Ford) to recruit him as the first African-American player to Major League Baseball, a character named Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) serves as the main antagonist. Chapman was a real manager who did in life exactly what he did in the film: Mercilessly taunt Robinson with racial epithets and abusive ad hominems. The vitriol was so stark, it actually built public support for Robinson.
At the end of the film, post-scripts tell us what happened to the real people presented; the epigraph for Chapman is not kind. Despite a good career in the majors, he will forever be remembered as a racist. Who, pray tell, would wish that for their legacy?
More people than you might imagine.
Michael Sam’s decision to publicly come out as gay — before being drafted by an NFL team — was, as the Boston Globe put it, “a Jackie Robinson moment” in the tapestry of gay rights. His decision to be open and honest, and volunteer as a lightning rod for homophobia, takes courage — takes strength — far great than he even needed to step onto a field and face off against a dozen 250-pound men out to hurt him. It required strength of character.
That kind of character that has proven sadly lacking among many in sports.
No one, certainly not Sam, should have expected reaction to be unqualifiedly supportive. Late last year, British swimmer Tom Daley, long suspected of being gay, came out and was met with a fusillade of barbed tweets … and that was for an Englishman many Americans had not even heard of, a star in a sport usually watched only during the Olympics. In contrast, Sam was declaring himself gay barely a week after the Super Bowl in a team sport that, MLB’s assertions aside, truly is the Great American Pastime. Some folks were going to be harshly critical.
But anonymous tweets from armchair quarterbacks are one thing — there will always be racists, homophobes, bigots. The more surprising critics are the ones who don’t hide their closed-mindedness, who seem incapable of recognizing this moment for what it is: A historic advancement in civil rights.
Prior to Sam’s announcement, Jonathan Vilma, a 31-year-old, 230-pound linebacker for the New Orleans Saints, embarrassingly opined that he would quake in his shower shoes at the thought of a gay man in the locker room seeing him naked. Meanwhile, Brett Favre tweets obscene selfies of his genitals throughout the ether, and players routinely walk around bare-assed in locker rooms while female reporters (and all-seeing TV cameras) capture them in all their sweaty glory. If modesty were Vilma’s motivation, he should have probably steered clear of pro sports.
But of course it wasn’t. His concern, barely disguised, is what used to be called “gay panic,” and which is now known more accurately as “appalling ignorance.” How can a man who has lived 31 heterosexual years possibly be intimidated by the mere idea that another man might check him out? I can assure Vilma: Gay men do that all the time when watching football already. Do you feel dirty? How can that thought turn you into a quivering ball of stress? Will you run through the locker room yelling “stranger danger” and seek comfort in mommy’s arms?
What’s perhaps most offensive is that Vilma, like Sam, is African-American — the direct beneficiary of Jackie Robinson crossing the race line. There was a time, not long ago, when we were assured sports “weren’t ready” for black players, that the armed services “weren’t ready” for mixed-race troops, that America “wasn’t ready” for a black president, or a gay movie star or a married lesbian couple. Guess what? We’re as ready as we’ll ever be. The only thing holding us back is people like Vilma, people who think of everyone as “other” without seeing that themselves were once “other,” too.
Out gay people are, simply put, a reality. They are hiring you, feeding you dinner, driving your limo, shining your shoes and voting on your legislation. Ignoring reality doesn’t protect you from it. It just puts you on the wrong side of history.
It has to stop, for their own goods. One day, Michael Sam may well be considered the great sports pioneer of the early millennium. But if people like Vilma, even though talented on the field, continue to allow bigotry to write their biographies, those career achievements will become footnotes. They will be relegated to the dust heap of history with the Ben Chapmans, the Orval Faubuses, the Bull Connors. The tide of culture will leave them behind — indeed, it already has.
Are pro sports ready for an out, gay athlete? Haters and Allies weigh in
I don’t think anyone in my family knew. He’s made history. He really has made history and I’m really proud of him. … I tell people all the time, if anyone has anything to say negative about him, come see me. I have a word for you. That’s my nephew and I do have his back.
— Aunt Geraldine
I applaud Missouri DE @MichaelSamfootball for his bravery & honesty about who he is. I pray he gets a opportunity 2 play the game he loves! — Deion Sanders
We will evaluate Michael just like any other draft prospect: on the basis of his ability, character and NFL potential. His announcement will have no effect on how we see him as a football player. — John Elway
Congratulations on leading the way, @MikeSamFootball. That’s real sportsmanship. — President Barack Obama
“I can’t even watch sportscenter today cause all there [sic] talking about is Marcus Smart or that fag from mizzou…”
— One of several derisive tweets Kent State University wrestler Sam Wheeler. The administration suspended him from the team.
“YOW!!!!! Mr/MSam you scare to rub on titties and ass and coochie you gaey [sic]. Man up … and get on your knew and submit to God fully.”
— Instagram post from Canadian Football League player Arland Bruce III. The CFL fined Bruce for the statement.
“I don’t do the gay guys, man. I o don’t do that. No, we don’t go no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do.”
— S.F. 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver on Jan. 29, before Michael Sam came out.
“I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet. In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.” — An unnamed NFL personnel assistant, quoted in Sports Illustrated
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 14, 2014.