Monday, February 10, 2014

It doesn't really matter if the NFL is "ready" for a gay player: Thoughts on Michael Sam

By Michael J.W. Stickings

With the Olympics on, I've been spending more time than usual on Twitter, but over the past 24 hours what I've tweeted about most isn't Sochi but Michael Sam, the Missouri college football player who, ahead of this spring's NFL draft, announced publicly on Sunday that's he's gay.

My quick thoughts are as follows:

Michael Sam is a courageous young man. He may only be projected to be a third- or fourth-round pick, and there may be questions about his ability to succeed at the pro level, but he's obviously a leader of superior character. He was a great college player, but he was also the respected captain of a successful team. And it says a lot that his team was fully behind him all season after he came out to them last year.

It is disappointing that some of the reaction from the NFL has been negative, mainly from anonymous team officials but also from idiots like Herm Edwards, but in general I've been impressed with the support Sam has received -- from the league, from players, from commentators in the media. I suspect that there are many who are keeping quiet because they fear what would be said about them, and to them, were they to be open about their views, but that, too, is a sign of just how much things have changed.

Will Sam have an easy go of it in the NFL? No, of course not. First, it'll be tough for him to make an opening day roster, though, as I said, his leadership and character should not be discounted. Second, if he does make it, I'm sure there will be those in the locker room, among the fans, and throughout the NFL and society generally, who reject him given their bigotry towards his sexual orientation. But let's not think that NFL teams are dominated by bigots. I suspect that, despite some initial questions from some who don't know what to make of him, he'll quickly be welcomed by his team, just as he was at Missouri. Support for gay rights, and for acceptance, is very much a generational matter, after all, and most of the players in the league are really young. Being gay just isn't the "problem" it is for some of the league's older personnel, like GMs and scouts. And ultimately I suspect it will all be a non-issue, even if the media try to make a great deal of it.

But the question remains: Is the NFL actually ready for a gay player? I think it is, but the other way to look at it is, does it matter? To which I say: no. Was MLB ready for Jackie Robinson? Was the military ready for women in combat? Was the South ready for emancipation? On this, I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates:

The question which we so often have been offered -- is the NFL ready for a gay player? -- is backwards. Powerful interests are rarely "ready" for change, so much as they are assaulted by it. We refer to barriers being "broken" for a reason. The reason is not because great powers generally like to unbar the gates and hold a picnic in the honor of the previously excluded. The NFL has no moral right to be "ready" for a gay player, which is to say it has no right to discriminate against gay men at its leisure which anyone is bound to respect.

Those who say the league isn't ready are basically trying to justify ongoing discrimination. This is always the case with the "not ready" argument. "We're not ready. We will be sometime, just not now." But the "now" never comes; it's always out there in the future. So sometimes the barriers just have to be broken, institutional discrimination smashed into oblivion. That is the case now with Michael Sam and the gays playing openly in the NFL.

Personally, I would love to have him play for my beloved Steelers. (We need depth outside linebacker depth, and he'd be a great pick if not overvalued.) But I also just want to have him play in the NFL, to play because he's good enough, to be accepted for who he is and for his sexual orientation to have no bearing at all on his success, or lack thereof. If he's a Steeler, I'll cheer for him along with the rest of the team, but I'll have something extra for him given what he's going through and what he stands for. But I'll be a fan no matter where he lands, and I'll be rooting for him to have great career and to be as happy as he can possibly be.

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