Editorial: Now it’s about football for Sam and fans
On Saturday, Michael Sam took the next step in his journey to become the National Football League’s first openly gay player.
The St. Louis Rams selected Sam in the seventh and final round of the draft, with the 249th overall pick. Cameras showed the burly defensive lineman from the nearby University of Missouri receiving a call from the Rams’ front office and then breaking into tears when he learned he’d been selected. With cameras still rolling, Sam turned to his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, and kissed and embraced him. Later, Sam playfully smeared cake on Cammisano’s face before kissing him again.
In that moment, American sports fans took another step alongside Sam, but there was ugliness in the gait. As it turned out, there is a difference between theoretical and practical acceptance. The affection between Sam and Cammisano proved challenging for some fans and former players of a violent, hyper-masculine sport. Many of the negative reactions were predictably juvenile.
Miami Dolphins defensive back Don Jones sent two tweets after the kiss – one said “OMG” and the other “horrible.” He has since been fined and suspended from team activities.
Former NFL player Derrick Ward said: “Man U got little kids lookin at the draft. I can’t believe ESPN even allowed that to happen.”
Another father, former NFL offensive lineman Roman Oben, saw it differently. “Watching Michael Sam kiss his partner on national TV w/ my 12 yr old son was a very teachable moment for him & fir me as a parent,” Oben tweeted.
He was right to seize the moment as an opportunity to have a discussion with his son, but the real hope is that by the time his son has a child of his own, that particular teachable moment will no longer be necessary. In the intermediate and latter stages of social progress, explanation becomes anachronistic.
Take Jackie Robinson. His real victory came not in those first few steps toward acceptance but rather years later when many baseball fans stopped giving any real consideration to what it meant for a player to be black, white, Latino or Asian. They were all just ballplayers of varying ability who occasionally transcended the game, not because of or despite their race but because they performed in such a way that made fans fully embrace them. Red Sox fans don’t view David Ortiz as a man of Dominican descent. He’s bigger-than-life Big Papi.
Eventually, people start taking steps without even thinking about it. But early on, when each dizzying step requires calculation and assessment, the simple act of walking can appear awkward.
Effortless progress requires inherent purpose, a knowledge of where you are going and why you are going there.
Michael Sam isn’t merely a gay football player. He is a football player whose success will be decided on the field – and he will be cheered or booed accordingly. The fact that he is gay will become the minutia of his player biography, along with his hometown and favorite food, but will be rendered meaningless on the field of play.
That is the next step for American football fans.