By Jeb Lund
On Sunday, Missouri defensive lineman and AP SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam came out as gay to ESPN, The New York Times and Sports Illustrated. Before outing himself, Sam was projected as a mid-round draft pick, which would make him the first gay player in the NFL to be out while on an active roster.
It's too early to understand the impact his story will have on the game. In coming days, we will learn more about his background, his character and the creditable behavior of his teammates, who knew this secret for the whole of this last season and kept it for him. What it's not too early for yet is concern trolling, handwringing and dead-end reasoning.
By now you might have seen the Sports Illustrated piece featuring early reactions like this from NFL personnel:
"I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," said an NFL player personnel assistant. "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."
Thinking like this is patently silly, and nothing confirms that quite like the conversation we should have had all along about the incidents between Dolphins linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. In that case, sources with the team said that coaches encouraged Incognito to "toughen up" Martin and bring "him into the fold." The result was a campaign of bullying, hazing and harassment against Martin that led to his speaking out, leaving the team and being accused of betraying the culture of the locker room and sabotaging the organic and sacrosanct structure of "the team."
Many sports analysts were complicit in advancing this line of thinking; God only knows why. In some cases, it's surely just loudmouths scrabbling for attention. In others, one suspects that sportswriters who could never play the game love the access and privilege of being allowed in the locker room and, off the record, sort of being one of the guys. Hence, the sovereign importance of that culture.
This was horses--- then, and it's the same horses--- that concern trolls will shovel at you now about Sam. Analysts invested in promoting the culture of the NFL routinely resort to militaristic metaphors. They talk about coaches like the heads of the General Staff and quarterbacks as their field generals, leading their men in the trenches. With the exception of novelties like Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh -- who seem to enjoy maintaining a dialogue with players -- coaches are presented to us as uncompromising autocrats.
That the NFL and its water carriers trade so frequently in these metaphors gives the lie to divesting coaches, general managers and owners of moral responsibility when things go awry. The most galling fact about the Incognito incident remains Joe Philbin's continued employment as coach of the Dolphins, because abusive hierarchical behavior like Incognito's only works if he has the explicit consent or implied toleration of those higher up. In an autocracy, you don't have any power unless the boss lends it to you. Team "leaders" like Incognito possess authority only at the pleasure of men like Philbin. We talk about football organizations as "teams," but this is vassalage.
Which makes any arguments about the NFL needing to be "ready" for Michael Sam a non-starter. Football isn't crowdsourced. You can't paint the NFL as a strictly hierarchical organization, then do a 180º and say that change must come from the consent of the players and be attenuated according to their moods. (It's this same thinking that led Truman to integrate the armed forces: This is not a discussion, it's an order.) If you did, teams wouldn't work now, even if they were 100 percent heterosexual (and they very likely aren't).
Change is frightening in any number of non-sexual ways, but humoring others' fear doesn't prevent its going forward apace. Surely many New England Patriots were less than sanguine about continuing to start Tom Brady over Drew Bledsoe after the latter came back from injury. Doubtless, a lot of veteran players saw their own football mortality play out in the Brady-Bledsoe switch. "If it can happen to the leader, it can happen to me." There probably was not a vote. This was what was best for the team; the team was told; then Bill Belichick went back to his underground Wolfsschanze until darkness fell.
That, really, is all the NFL team that drafts Michael Sam will need. An owner tells a GM, who tells a coach, who tells a team, "I don't care who you are, when you're here, you're all brothers. Check your religion or your case of the ickies at the door when you come in here or when someone sticks a camera in your face. Now we go to work." And if that's not enough, if you think your team is going to lose because there's a gay dude on it, your team is already too fundamentally crappy for him to make a difference. Two guys holding hands and arranging adjacent deck chairs aren't going to do anything about the iceberg clawing through the hull of that ship.
As for any other handwringing arguments, all of them are just as easily dispelled by the "that's an order" imperative, but their falsity doesn't get far even without that kind of directive. Yes, it's possible that Michael Sam might "rub his homosexuality in his teammates faces," but turnabout is fair play. Straight people don't stop to notice that they rub their heterosexuality in everyone's faces all the time. Turn on a TV show or a movie, and almost everyone is straight. Gross public displays of affection surround us every day -- people kissing, squeezing, holding hands, having a quick grope -- but we don't notice it because it's straight.
It's possible, too, that Sam's teammates might feel like they've been "checked out" by him, but that's a natural consequence of showering at any gym. Hell, it's a natural consequence of going outside. Meanwhile, there's not a lot of activist overlap between men who act like shrinking violets at the prospect of being ogled by another dude and men who point out the broad social toleration of men brazenly staring at a woman's chest, just because she's alive, breasted and walking proximal to dude's eyes. (The radical politically correct solution to this -- indeed, the entire animating purpose of political correctness -- is to not be a dick.)
As for Sam's being a distraction, that's a non-starter, for two reasons. Good distractions get good press and earn loyal fans. In that SI piece, one NFL scout asked, "Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote 'break that barrier'?" Well, maybe you do if you want your brand to echo through history as the one with the courage to be on the right side of it. Maybe you want to sell merchandise to another demographic. The Brooklyn Dodgers probably didn't mind selling extra tickets to black fans. Branch Rickey probably didn't mind being considered a legend. And, as for those who might walk away from football, what else are they going to watch? If Caste Football proves anything, it's that a minority-heavy league can't even manage to drive away virulent racists.
Moreover, distractions cut both ways. As my colleague Susan Elizabeth Shepard points out, in the last five years, the Super Bowl has featured six players accused of sexual assault. Ben Roethlisberger and Ray Lewis were routinely lionized as the hearts of their teams. Meanwhile, every lineman in the league might be
Though they might not ultimately be rational or something future generations will respect, the fears surrounding Michael Sam are real and deserve to be met head-on -- not sidelong, hoping the erosion of a decade or more makes them go away without effort. Fear always attends change, especially when that change features something more unfamiliar than it is actually menacing. But refusal to embrace change because it's difficult or creates anxiety is a coward's refrain. The big things will always be difficult, and the new things will always be more intimidating than preserving the old. Unless, of course, you're a victim of the latter.
Because the big problem of recoiling from change, to spare the people who enjoy things as they are from feeling anxious, is that it privileges people frightened of the future over people with legitimate reason to be frightened of the present. It nurtures and protects ignorance and/or unfamiliarity as something vulnerable and worth preserving, rather than challenging those attitudes and nurturing groups at real risk of violence, social stigma and political impotence. It infantilizes us and lets us believe that hiding under the covers in the dark rather than reaching for the light is the reasonable corrective for a belief in monsters. It takes pains to keep those who enjoy the status quo from enduring any, and in exchange it tells people already marginalized by or ostracized from parts of society that it is for their own good to remain out in the cold.
And it doesn't have to be like that. Michael Sam can be accepted on day one. In part, because we can reason against specious arguments that portray him as a threat. And in part because the nature of the NFL means that those in charge can declare that he will be accepted. "Because we said so."
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