This week it is a real pleasure to honor a Hero of the Week who is also making strides in Black History. Michael Sam was born in 1990 in Texas. The seventh of eight children, he has faced significant family hardship. His parents separated when he was little. One brother died from a gunshot in front of him, another is missing, and two are incarcerated. Sam discovered a talent for football in high school, but met opposition from his mother, whose religion is opposed to organized sports. Often he had to stay with friends.
A promising player, Sam was accepted into the University of Missouri and joined their football team in 2009, the first member of his family to attend college. During his time on the team, he racked up an enviable record, including being named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team All-American. (Wow, I don’t think I have ever used this many sports terms in my life.) He is considered a top choice for the NFL draft.
Michael Sam put that promising career at risk with bold honesty. Last August, he told his team that he was gay. They were very supportive and agreed to let him come out publicly on his own time — Bravo! Last Sunday, he did just that. He is one of a handful of openly gay college athletes and, if drafted, would be come the first out gay player active in the NFL.
Coming out is still, sadly, a challenge and a risk. It is even more difficult and risky for those facing many intersections of oppression, and African-American men have historically faced even greater threats and rejections. Professional sports are hardly embracing, and the NFL is at the bottom of the pack. Despite all this, Sam decided that honesty and integrity made it worth the risk. In his coming out interview with the New York Times, he said:
I just want to go to the team who drafts me, because that team knows about me, knows that I’m gay, and also knows that I work hard. That’s the team I want to go to.
That’s as it should be. Hard work and talent should be enough for any team. Nonetheless, a number of NFL executives and officials commented anonymously in Sports Illustrated that Sam had doomed his chances. Playing the gay panic card, they said things like
There are guys in locker rooms that maturity-wise cannot handle it or deal with the thought of that. There’s nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of the locker room. If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it? It’s going to be a big distraction. That’s the reality.
How disgusting and how bizarre! Does it then naturally follow that all heterosexual men are unable to control themselves around all women that come near them? How ironic that Michael Sam made a strong public statement and those who want to tear him down will only speak off the record.
Fortunately, the official NFL stance is much more positive:
We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.
Let’s hope that this proves to be true, and that Michael Sam gets the chance he deserves to shatter an ugly, long-standing barrier.
How absolutely wonderful that First Lady Michelle Obama texted Sam:
You’re an inspiration to all of us, @MikeSamFootball. We couldn’t be prouder of your courage both on and off the field. -mo
Just when I did not think I could love her anymore than I already did. Brava, First Lady!
As a nice footnote to this story, Hero of the Week Honorable Mention goes to an unexpected representative of the dominant discourse. Dale Hansen, a white sportscaster on WFAA TV in Dallas, TX, celebrated Michael Sam and thrashed his critics during his segment Monday evening, ripping apart their hypocrisy:
You beat a woman and drag her down a flight of stairs, pulling her hair out by the roots? You’re the fourth guy taken in the NFL draft. You kill people while driving drunk? That guy’s welcome … You lie to police trying to cover up a murder? We’re comfortable with that. You love another man? Well, now you’ve gone too far!
Of course, I love that he quotes Audre Lorde! He rails against conservatives who want small government but also want the government to control who we can love and ends with a lovely celebration of the ways that our differences make us stronger. Thank you, Mr. Hansen!