It felt like election night.
The third day of the NFL draft is supposed to be an ignored irrelevance for sane sports fans. It is even a dreary slog for me: a chance to generate a trickle of business by demonstrating my awesome knowledge of Ricardo Allen and Cyril Richardson on the social networks. For anyone except a player hoping to be drafted, it usually provides the opposite of tension, operating somewhere between a graduation roll call and a PBS pledge drive on the drama scale.
But Michael Sam was on the board, so Saturday afternoon was election night. Presidential election night, not race-for-county-freeholder election night. I waited, as cautiously optimistic as caution and optimism allow, for Sam to be selected. My hopes for society, and for an institution that has become central to my life, began lumping together in my throat.
We all know how election night feels. If your guy is ahead in the polls, a part of you refuses to fully believe it. If he is behind, you refuse to give up hope. If he, like Sam on Saturday, begins falling, falling, falling, your spirits plummet with him. The television provides pretty graphics and prattling analysis on multiple networks. Senators and governors win or lose in landslides, just as AJ McCarron joins the Bengals and Lache Seastrunk joins the Redskins. They are famous, important people who are about to have in impact, but you don't care.
You don't care because if your guy wins, it's a validation of your ideology, proof that America is heading in the right direction. And if he loses, it's a sign that our nation's greatest enemy -- citizens just like you, but with slightly different opinions -- has received its mandate to wreak havoc.
From the moment he announced his sexual orientation, Michael Sam's draft status represented a referendum: not really upon homosexuality, and not just upon social/institutional acceptance of homosexuality, but upon the NFL's open-mindedness, tolerance and basic value as an entity that represents more than generating the most possible cash by the unhealthiest means. I don't worry about Sam's soul, or even my own, but about the NFL's, because as the NFL goes, a football-maniacal nation follows … or so it feels to a person who watches football film and scours depth charts on spring afternoons. If the NFL is not ready for an openly gay player, how ready are any of us for the social changes that I consider both inevitable and just?
Those are the feelings of an election night. If America rejects my candidate, my own nation rejects my values. And if the NFL rejects Michael Sam, then my league does not stand for the basic things I stand for: not just tolerance and progress, but the good business sense of hiring the most qualified candidates. The scout in me sees punter Pat O'Donnell get drafted by the Bears and grows suspicious. When players at Sam's position from Marist and Illinois State leave the board, I despair, a voter who worries that the stump speeches were simple rhetoric. The social philosopher in me (there is one of them in all of us) considers moving to Canada. And becoming a lacrosse fan.
The lights flicker and the on-screen graphics proclaim breaking news. A concession speech? Did my political opponent finally admit to unspeakable evil and lock himself in a public stockade? Did Michael Sam finally get drafted? No, the Cardinals took a wide receiver from Murray State, and an Independent won a congressional seat in Vermont. No one cares.
The Seahawks are on the clock. They are an open-minded organization in an open-minded city! The Chargers are on the clock: they run a 4-3 defense and drafted Manti Te'o, who quietly went about his career after months in the media wringer. The Panthers? Nope. They took Sam's teammate Kony Ealy, eliminating any possible need at defensive end. Texas is voting red, of course. Massachusetts blue. Show me Ohio! Show me a 51-49 margin, with 500 votes counted from a rural junction. Let me wring my hands, vow to swear off the coverage and wait until morning to learn the results, turn off the television, wait 30 seconds, start checking Twitter for updates, and turn on the television again for more crawls, anticipation, frustration.
On election night, you come face to face with just how much your sense of self is wrapped up in a set of values and convictions, which vaguely overlap with the broad planks of one of two viable political platforms, which are then personified by a firm-jawed dude in a tailored suit. It's silly: two major compromises take place when the content of your heart and soul is wedded to a homogenized soup of slogans and policies, then that soup is poured into the frail, fallible form of an old general, or millionaire, or career politician, or a nice fellow born in Kenya. (Kidding! KIDDING! Lightening the mood a bit!) Does what you believe, what you pray for, what you cherish really match this amalgam of foreign policy dictates and taxation strategies? Probably not. Yet you seethe, hyperventilate and battle blood relatives on Facebook over something vague and tenuous.
And Michael Sam, likeable, admirable and talented as he is: how good a football player is he, really? He was a college star falling down the draft board, but so was Tajh Boyd. No uncomfortable truths about American culture hung in the balance of Boyd's draft status, though 35 years ago they certainly would have.
Then the Jets selected Boyd, like a state got called for your opponent. Election night became a lonelier vigil, full of kickers and guys with names like Rob Blanchflower.
Like every presidential candidate in history, Sam is flawed, and more of a symbol of a symbol in our minds and hearts than a collection of talents and skills. Maybe NFL teams were passing over Sam the football player, not Sam the openly gay football player. Maybe I was rooting for some abstract symbolic harbinger of cultural improvement, not the All-American defense end from Mizzou who I scouted with my own eyes and saw had limited pass-rush potential.
And perhaps America rejected your favorite candidate because they found him underqualified, not because they are short-sighted or hateful or have fallen under the thrall of sinister propaganda. But on election night, when your candidate is trailing and Florida is teetering to and fro, it does not feel that way. Good and evil battle above, in the firmament of the heavens. The future itself hangs in the balance. And neither Mike Mayock nor that dude with the map on CNN will shut the hell up.
A funny thing happens the day after an election, or an inauguration or on any random day during the administration of that hated president with the vile agenda. Life goes on. The arguments wage on. Some attitudes swing back and forth on a cultural pendulum, while others progress gravitationally forward, but neither good nor evil prevails, at least in America, thank heavens.
Dawn would also come, no matter what happened on Saturday, for Michael Sam, the NFL, those cheering for an openly gay player to assimilate with relative ease into America's great aspirational institution and (yes) those on the other side of the issue. Sam will not be the last openly gay player to enter the NFL draft pool. The next gay player may have the skills of Jadeveon Clowney or Johnny Manziel. The next gay player may enter the draft as one of a dozen gay players. And those who think homosexuality is a sin will still enjoy freedom of worship, freedom of speech and the freedom to root for the teams and players of their choice, which for football fans is the same freedom in three different forms.
We used to argue about civil rights for women and minorities during presidential elections, and in a coded way we still do. We used to argue about black quarterbacks in the NFL draft, and in a coded way we still do. But that gravity keeps pulling forward, despite the pendulum swings.
Finally, with the television talkers bracing and Twitter in a pitchfork froth, an NFL functionary waddled to the podium and mumbled that the Rams chose Michael Sam. A few dozen diehards at Radio City Music Hall chanted in support. ESPN showed Sam keeling forward with emotion, then accepting a kiss from a boyfriend. Emotions of giddy triumph gushed from Sam's supporters among the constituency.
Today there is joy, tomorrow reality: the Rams already have the best defensive line on earth, so Sam must either move to linebacker or climb a crowded depth chart. Sam, like a president-elect, faces major challenges and an uphill battle.
Turn off the election coverage. Get some rest. The truly hard part is just beginning. But at least we live in a time and place where it has a chance to happen.