The big news the other week was that Missouri University linebacker Michael Sam had come out of the closet — which, if all goes according to plan and he gets drafted by the NFL in May, would make him the first openly gay, active football player in NFL history.
This is a giant step for the LGBT community and a massive leap for the NFL, America’s most popular, testosterone-oozing, violence-ridden, homophobic boys club.
I suspect it won’t be as easy for Mr. Sam to simply integrate himself in a locker room at first. I mean, if you’ve been in any team locker room, anywhere, ever, you see that men call each other homo and other lewd turns of phrase as an innately accepted form of male bonding. It’s the same way in restaurant kitchens or auto body shops or any blue-collar establishment where men work together — and it’s unfortunate.
If you grew up in the ’90s, attempted to play sports and listened to Biggie and Wu-Tang — things that a lot of white males in Midlothian did, like me — these words probably were added to your vernacular. That’s just the way it was, although it’s something I feel remorse about now. We also wore Timberlands and goofy, oversized, Nautica polo shirts, hung out in food courts and doused ourselves in Cool Water before dates — things I also put in the regret file. Unfortunately, a lot of straight men still speak this way, even if they support the LGBT community.
Now, Michael Sam is 6-foot-3, weighs 260 pounds and is built like a Mack truck, so I pity the corn-fed, hillbilly nose tackle that decides to drop a slur on him. The guy is gonna get dropped like third-period French, and it’ll be just lovely.
And if you’ve been to an NFL game then you know there will be drunk fans who will berate Sam and say horribly offensive stuff, because a good percentage of the people who attend NFL games are backwards, revolting and illiterate. I mean, have you ever tailgated at Fed Ex Field? But time will heal all, and Sam’s teammates will support him, and we’ll probably forget about what a big deal this all was.
What we need to hope for is that Michael Sam’s move will lead another closeted athlete — a huge star — to emerge to tell the world he’s gay. I’m looking at you, Kobe. That’s when it becomes a true nonstory. When that happens, a few years down the road, a professional athlete’s coming out won’t even make the papers anymore.
As we see every day in professional sports, you can get away with murder, rape, racism, drug abuse, performance-enhancing drugs, delinquent child-support payments, animal abuse and domestic violence — as long as you perform on the field or court. Everything can be spun into a story of redemption or the long road back or some other bullshit, as long as you put up the numbers. We let men who have a history of beating women continue to be play the role of hero on the field, but we can’t let a gay man just be himself?
Since the announcement, I’ve seen a couple of people saying that this isn’t news, and they don’t care about an openly gay player, and that they want to focus on sports, which is complete crap. It’s a way for the God-fearin’, secretly homophobic old guard to sidestep the issue completely — an easy out. They’ll talk about Mike Vick killing dogs till they’re blue in the face, but a courageous young man breaks a barrier and comes out — nah, that isn’t news.
But let’s be clear about this: It’s major news and its importance can’t be marginalized. It’ll be interesting to see what happens May 8, when the NFL draft begins. Will a team select Sam based on merit alone? Will it select him for the good press and goodwill that inevitably will come? Or will teams avoid him, saying he’s a distraction? Because he’s a sideshow that one anonymous NFL exec already has said “isn’t that good anyways?”
And just think, once we get past this, and a few others come out, once the professional sports, anti-gay frontier that is the NFL has been explored and settled, we can start focusing on the last strongholds of anti-gay bias. Professions like hairstyling, interior decorating, regional theater, women’s tennis, women’s softball, wearing leather vests and riding around on Harleys, back-up dancing, etc.
There will always be people who refuse to change, leaving an undercurrent of hate and inequality toward the LGBT community. But real progress is being made, the tide is turning and Sam’s announcement meant something special to a lot of people.
It’s a beautiful thing.
And hey, at least we aren’t Russia. I’d probably be piss drunk on vodka all the time too if I had to deal with its draconian laws and aggressive repression of basic human rights.
Connect with Richmond bartender Jack Lauterback at firstname.lastname@example.org. Lauterback also is co-host of “Mornings with Melissa and Jack” on 103.7 Play, weekdays from 6-9. On Twitter @jackgoesforth.