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Michael Sam And The Attack On Heterosexuality In Pro Sports

The gay NFL player is finally a reality. But at whose expense?

By J.R. Gamble February 24, 2014, 09:49 AM EST

Michael-sam-nfl-combine-press-conference

Michael Sam had the press conference of the century on Saturday. At least that’s what most media pundits and social activists sold it as. Sam already had his bombshell moment by becoming the first future NFL pick to publicly announce he was gay, but the media horde in attendance expressed that the people want more. They stood on chairs and did the elbow shuffle to position themselves to hear this overnight symbol of gay strength speak. The media isn’t satisfied with him just coming out of the closet and humanizing the conversation about gays in the locker room. Because of Sam's openness, no longer is the football field assumed to be a gay-free environment and that's a huge deal. It will take some time for most traditionalists to grasp that concept.   

Sam seems to wish the hoopla about him being gay would fade into the background and his prowess as a pass-rushing maniac would prevail as the compelling debate, but the can of worms has been opened and they are squirming like crazy. Rocking a rainbow-colored “Stand With Sam” pin, Sam, who fielded a barrage of questions about his sexuality, initiated his press conference at Lucas Oil Stadium by saying:

"Good afternoon. My name is Michael Sam, and I play football for the University of Missouri. As you may know, Missouri is the 'Show Me State,' and I think I've shown you guys enough in the past couple of weeks. But I'm learning about the media, and you guys still want more, so ask your questions, and I'll answer them the best I can."

Honestly, Sam’s a couple of All-Pro seasons away from being anything other than the “first openly gay football player” and he knows it. And despite the overwhelming support he has received from media, fans and the NFL, Sam can’t possibly think that he can slip a dime like that and then ease into the background as just another dude on the gridiron grind.

So expect that Sam will be promoted and used by the NFL to finally reach into the gay market and get some of that money flow, even though he says right now, “I have no endorsements.” It makes sense for NFL execs and the league to ride Sam’s situation until the wheels fall off. It’s keeping the NFL in the forefront of national news which is always good for a sports entity.

While this recent movement is a thumbs up for tolerance, the way the media has shamed people into having to act like being gay is something everyone proudly embraces has reverse discriminatory effects on heterosexual players. If you didn't clap for Jason Collins on Sunday night as he made his debut with the Nets as the first "openly gay NBA player," then something is obviously wrong with you morally right?  But no one is beefing about that 10-day contract with the Nets, which seems like more of a symbolic gesture than a necessary personnel move. A way for Brooklyn to steal the headlines and get credit for being the "first" at something. How the tides have turned. 

Collins is actually playing in the NBA today because he is gay and possibly taking jobs away from heterosexual males who may be fringe players but don't have that extra "gay" trait which elevates normal men to icons now. 

The conversation about the need for new NFL policies stressing tolerance and sensitivity has dominated the airwaves. When players are interviewed about Sam, honesty is never what the person asking the questions is seeking. They are hoping that a player slips up and expresses his true opinion, creating three more weeks of copy about this "homophobic" player and why the locker room needs to be rid of such cretins. Every media show needs a Richie Incognito-type of villain. No one’s victimized Sam yet, so there’s no particular bad guy other than potential intolerance, and eventually that guy's going to need a face. 

But as Sam’s movement gains momentum and changes in motive, so does the dynamics of team-player interviews and character analysis. In the past, certain teams have been scolded for trying to pry into a player’s sexuality either directly or indirectly. It can’t be proven but it was always assumed that any uncertainty concerning a player’s sexuality would be a death blow to his draft status, regardless of how effective the player is.

Instead of solving the problem, the script has simply been flipped. Moving forward, certain questions will be asked during player interviews at showcases such as the combines, and instead of “Are you gay?” being an intrusive and inappropriate question to ask a prospective draftee, now “Are you uncomfortable with gays in the locker room?” will be the question that draft prospects better answer with a resounding “No,” or risk being labeled as prejudice or homophobic. Too truthful an answer might even damage one’s draft stock.

How ironic.

Even in making social progress, our society manages to trample upon the rights of others. With the heterosexual male now being the “other” party in this celebration of Michael Sam’s announcement that gay males have officially infiltrated NFL locker room culture – any NFL player who has a problem with undressing in front of gay men better find another profession.

This huge push by media, government and other liberal entities to “normalize” homosexuality is not taking into account people’s religious and moral beliefs and how it may take some time for them to come to terms with Sam’s sexual orientations, as well as change the nature of their verbal interaction within the locker room. That doesn’t mean players are going to outcast him, but if a Muslim allows you to put ham in his refrigerator, he's already going against the grain. That’s what players who are staunchly against homosexuality are doing by dealing with Sam in a professional manner. Forcing the Muslim to eat the ham and threatening to destroy him if he doesn’t is a bit excessive. Tensions can arise. People generally don’t like being told what to do. That's kind of how this focus on gay athletes feels to me. 

Nobody’s going to mess with Sam though. He’s untouchable right now. The more interesting situation will be when there are five guys in the locker room who are publically gay, and together, they can more comfortably express their sexuality. Will this create a fractured or adversarial culture within the locker room as it often does in society?

So far I haven't seen any protesters. If the accepting way in which players have handled the Sam situation is any indication, then this muzzling of the heterosexual male seems to be working.

Learned behavior is hard to change overnight, so pardon me if I give dudes a pass for their supposed “ignorance” when expressing truth about their feelings.  Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Ellis suggested that some players would feel uncomfortable getting smacked on the bottom or showering beside another male who could be attracted to them. That’s just a real life honest answer from a man who is used to a women’s touch.

Some call those feelings prehistoric, but to ignore the widespread existence of them is also unrealistic. It’s as unrealistic as expecting gay players to forever remain in the closet because at one time NFL culture generally frowned upon homosexuality.

That’s an element past NFL players never had to deal with, and of course there were gay players in the closet before Sam put his bump-n-grind biz on front street. The truth is, most players would rather not know, so they don’t have to even think about what Sam’s intentions may be. The Clinton Administration's “Don’t Ask. Don’t Tell” military policy on gays which was ended in 2011, has morphed into the “Tell, Promote And Get Put On A Higher Pedestal Than Heterosexual Males,” philosophy of today.

That’s sort of how it feels to me. There’s nothing wrong with fighting for equality. Most of us would agree that we’d rather a person be morally sound than fit into a certain sexual category. But are gay people now becoming the “untouchable race”?

Sometimes it seems that way, because every proponent of progression, who says one’s sexual orientation shouldn’t be a big deal, are celebrating athletes coming out of the closet with the same euphoric intensity as when Obama dropped bombs on Bin Laden. And if you don't share in the joy you get ostracized and frowned upon like that one person smoking a cigarette in 15 degree weather outside of the club. 

Though immersed in this media marathon, Sam gives the impression that he isn’t stressing the situation. He knows football will be the deciding factor as to how he is treated. He doesn’t strike me as a Jonathan Martin, passive personality guy anyway. Definitely seems like a much cooler dude to cut it up with. So I doubt he's going to be talking those kind of degrading shorts. 

"If someone wants to call me a name," Sam said, "I'll have a conversation with that guy, and hopefully it won't lead to anything else.

He seems like he is confident and zoned in.

“When I’m on the field I really don’t focus on the fans,” he said. “I just try to focus on my responsibility which is the guy right across from me.”

"I've been in locker rooms where all kinds of slurs have been said. I don't think anyone means it. They might be naive and uneducated but as time goes on everyone will adapt”...It is what it is and I wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player.”

It’s a little too late for that Mike. If you wanted that result you wouldn’t have said anything about being gay. In fact, you could have come out in-house like you did with your Missouri teammates. Sam played the entire season on the low-low after telling teammates and coaches during a team-building exercise that he was gay. The team agreed to keep it quiet and judge him on his merits as a person and player.

Some publications are going out of their way to paint Sam as a modern American hero. I wouldn’t go that far. It takes courage to admit to anything that some people don’t agree with or have a strong opinion against, but there have been gay activists on the front line well before Michael Sam came into the mix.

And I’m beginning to get confused as to whether Sam is a dope football player because he dominated at the defensive end position in college, or because being a great player in addition to being openly gay would add further luster and longevity to his developing story line.

Sure, at Missouri he was the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, but at 6-feet-1 5/8, 260 pounds, Sam isn't built like the prototype NFL defensive end and even moved to outside linebacker for some drills at the Senior Bowl. Most teams see him as a tweener with no natural position.

Still, the hyperbole train is already in full effect.

A recent Bleacher Report article had this to say about Sam:

“Based on my conversations with team executives, though Sam has shortcomings—the most common criticism is that he's inconsistent—my belief is on the field he will shock some people with his skill and longevity.”

Why?

“Off it, he will be an endorsement machine. He will charm Madison Avenue. His sexuality will not be as much an albatross as it will be magnetism that will draw people to Sam from all walks of life.”

Homie being gay does nothing to draw me to him or respect him any more or less.

“Sam has the temperament to handle the questions and pressure… Sam doesn't want to be a trailblazer, but he is, and he's perfect for it… Whether he likes it or not, he will be known for more than that, like Robinson or Billie Jean King or the forgotten Glenn Burke.”

Negative.

With all due respect to The Obamas and others, comparing Sam to Jackie Robinson borders on absurdity. The major difference is that Sam didn’t have to tell anybody he was gay, but Robinson couldn’t hide his blackness with 10 pounds of baby powder. No. 42 also lacked the total support of MLB, its coaches, staff, media and most fans. Robinson was in a hell-pit of bigotry and maliciousness with very few supporters to draw strength from outside of blacks who loved baseball but generally didn’t and couldn’t attend games. Sam immediately had the support of most people and became an instant icon. That advantage mixed with his character security has elevated him to spokesperson status. Getting back to that flipside however, he no longer owns his soul. Sam’s the property of a platform and a payday, and to some, another castrating tool used to attack heterosexuality in sports.

Jr_gamble

J.R. Gamble writes for The Shadow League. He's been covering pro sports as a radio host and journalist since 1996. He's written for The Raleigh News & Observer, Newsday and SLAM Magazine. He has co-hosted Sportsrap Radio with A Tribe Called Quest legend Phife Dawg. Follow him @fanalyst1 & find him on Facebook.

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