Ever since University of Missouri All-American defensive end Michael Sam made the announcement that he is gay, sports writers, broadcasters and columnists have been hailing his courage, bashing his detractors, and pointing with derision to the portion of social media buzz that has revealed the nation’s ugly homophobic side. The irony is that it is the mostly positive media obsession with Sam’s status as a potential trailblazer, rather than the antigay hate-mongers, who diminish Sam’s chances of success with their every word. This is obvious, or should be, yet the articles and rants keep on coming. I have to believe that it is a case of sports journalists engaging in the ultimate hypocrisy, making themselves look fair, unbigoted and devoted to the cause of full gay inclusion in American life (all while making their deadlines) while simultaneously and knowingly undermining the athlete they claim to be supporting. They have to shut up, or Sam is doomed.
Which means, unfortunately, that Sam is doomed….and that means that this episode, rather than advancing the cause of gay athletes, will be a serious setback for them instead.
Before his announcement, Sam was projected as a third to fifth round NFL draft choice as a defensive end. That means that he was not going to be an NFL “star.” even if everything worked out for the best. Third to fifth round NFL draft choices are virtually never NFL stars. Defensive ends are seldom NFL stars: ask one of your friends who claims to be a big football fan to name two NFL defensive ends who don’t play for his or her own favorite team. Here: who’s this?
He’s a 2014 Pro Bowl defensive end. Is he a star? Can you identify him by name or by team?* Probably not, and yet Sam, who has not played a single game in the NFL, has not made a roster cut and who has not even been drafted of signed, is being identified in the news media as a “future first gay NFL star.” Every time “gay” is appended to Sam’s name in the media, his opportunities of having a successful NFL career, never mind being a “star,’ are degraded. In the NFL, only your football performance on the playing field will make you a star, not what you are or do off of it.
Football teams want to win and make money. They do not, and I mean none of them, care about making social statements or advancing human rights agendas, nor should they; it’s not what they exist to do. With every self-righteous article about how Sam is a test for the NFL, how the world will be watching, about how this is a defining moment for the sport and the nation, Sam’s utility for those prime directives, win and profit, the goals that matter in professional sport, the objectives that most football fans care about, retreats, along with his value and earning ability. Here’s Sally Jenkins, Washington Post columnist, ratcheting up the pressure:
“He is a walking character test for the NFL and he will put that test to everyone he comes into contact with. He’s going to challenge the locker room norm, going to challenge NFL executive myopia and challenge NFL players’ homophobia. We will find out who the modern Branch Rickeys are. Which players will act more Pee Wee Reese and put an arm around him, and which will show their Dixie Walker side and demand to be traded rather than play alongside a gay man? Which team officials will be so lacking in character that they pass on him despite a legitimate need at defensive end?”
If I am a general manager for an NFL team, this will prompt me to think: “Yeah, that will be interesting, all right…on another team. I’m pretty sure I can find myself another third to firth round-worthy defensive end to draft who will NOT make my team ground zero for non-sports media attention, and every personnel decision involving its one openly gay player fodder for a debate on ESPN.” Indeed, I think that any general manager who does not think this way isn’t doing his job properly.
Win games and make money.
Not “strike a blow for gay rights.”
Michael Sam is not football’s gay Jackie Robinson, as I must have read 40 times in the last week. In 1947, there were no black players in baseball, and every team knew that there were plenty of good to great black players just waiting for a chance to help major league teams win games. Branch Rickey was a smart and brave man, but he didn’t recruit Robinson to win a Nobel Prize: he did it to improve his team, the Brooklyn Dodgers. And he knew that the first black player (see, there was no way to be the first “openly black” player) had to be a great one, not only because his success of the field would disprove the racist fools who argued, against all logic and evidence, that blacks were inferior to whites as players, but also because only the positive impact of such a player’s contribution to winning games would out-balance the negative impact the distraction caused by the media circus following the player’s every move would have in making it harder to win games. High level professional sports require focus. Distractions destroy focus, and hurt performance. If a player causes more distraction than his talents justify, no team will want him, and no team should want him
Michael Sam isn’t the gay Jackie Robinson. He’s the gay Tim Tebow, the short-time star quarterback whose flamboyant religiosity outshined his football skills. He’s a broadcaster now. There are other devout players, but only Tebow’s religious behavior attracted so much media and public attention that it became a distraction. Tebow, thanks to a media obsession with him, became an NFL freak, and the NFL doesn’t want freaks. There are other gay players in the NFL, too. Unlike the case with black players after World War II, Sam is not going to open the door to more gay talent and more fans (surprisingly, gay Americans are not considered a prime growth market for professional sports).
Sam is going to have enough problems trying to just play football without having news media obsessions with his sex life constantly intruding on every aspect of his career. Will he face hostility in the locker room? I wouldn’t bet against it: read the NFL’s report on the ugly bullying scandal involving the Miami Dolphins Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. Incognito is undoubtedly among the worst of the worst, but he’s probably closer to the norm than most football fans would like to believe. Will a substantial number of football fans be ready to blame Sam’s sexuality for every missed tackle? Well, pro football is the most popular sport in the U.S., it is hardly blindfold chess, and a substantial proportion of the public are ignorant morons—what do you think is the likely outcome? Many physicians believe the stress of being a trailblazer helped kill Jackie Robinson, who aged prematurely and died of diabetes; several of the other early black players who followed Robinson found the pressure too great, and never played up to expectations. The media is doing everything in its power to place similar burdens on Sam.
There is one way, and one way only, that Michael Sam will be able to have a positive affect on NFL and U.S. culture, and that is if his sexual orientation is allowed to fade into the background and be invisible….which it should be. (Jackie Robinson, in contrast, couldn’t avoid standing out.) He doesn’t need every columnist to show their virtue and sensitivity by writing columns like Jenkins’s. He doesn’t need websites pouncing on every instance of his behaving like gay men have every right to behave, like Mediaite and other sites publicizing this. He doesn’t needs TV rants like the one delivered by Texas sports anchor Dale Hanson and cheered by right-thinking, virtuous non-football fans everywhere:
“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. Players caught in hotel rooms with illegal drugs and prostitutes? We know they’re welcome. Players accused of rape and pay the woman to go away? 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!”
Yes, and about that, Dale—how many rants did you deliver condemning the domestic abusers and drug users and killers before they were drafted? If the teams signing such players believed that they would receive viral, around-the-clock coverage in every game they played for an indefinite time span, like you and your colleagues will be devoting to Sam’s benign sexual orientation, they might well have had second thoughts about drafting those players too. Not to mention the fact that comparing being gay to murder, drug use and assault is not exactly a ringing defense: See #20 on the Ethics Alarms Rationalization Scale, Comparative Virtue, or “It’s not the worst thing.”
No, what Michael Sam needs and deserves is for everyone to stop writing and ranting about how earthshaking the fact that he is gay will be, and just let him be a football player, judged like every other football player, by his ability to help win games. He needs the sports media to shut up.
They won’t, though.
That is why, tragically, he is doomed.
*That’s Robert Mathis, of the Indianapolis Colts
Pointer: Alexander Cheezem