Comment of the Day: “Ethics Hero: Michael Sam”

Dave Kopay, an earlier NFL Ethics Hero who paid the price for honesty

Dave Kopay, an earlier NFL Ethics Hero who paid the price for honesty

The media and sports talk show uproar about NFL prospect Michael Sam announcing that he is gay prior to the upcoming NFL draft has subsided considerably (just wait until Draft Day, though), but the Ethics Alarms threads about Sam’s decision and the ethical dilemmas and choices it represents remain vigorous.

Here is Penn’s thoughtful and well-rendered comment from yesterday, the Comment of the Day, on the post, Ethics Hero: Michael Sam…

Interesting “damned if you do; damned if you don’t” discussion here. The only point I see is that Sam stepped up to the plate (dis gut NFL speak, no?), which took guts. In this, I am in full agreement with Jack’s first paragraph.

Whatever Sam’s motivations or goals, or the reactions (or non) of his chosen profession and its fan-atics, or the general public, I don’t see any value in arguing generalized outcomes (unless they are exercises in ethics, naturally). I can say as much sooth as anyone, based on both anecdotal and empirical evidence; rather, I am talking about a negative value in doing so. [… maybe, if it’s up on the tote-board in Vegas.] Such debates just degenerate into … well, what Jack was interpolating into several exchanges: the writers’ biases, and the public’s bigotry (of course, the latter does not exist among EA commenters).

When it comes to public coming-out outcomes, the results (in Americanese: opinion=result) will range even more widely than they do here, from a crashing silence to blowback to heroic role modeling. The number and kind of variables are such that both discussion and prediction are removed entirely from Michael’s act, narrowed and filtered through sieves of bias (and that smidgeon of bigotry that peeps out now and again) until there isn’t anything left of the the subject. Broadly, these come into play and detract from what Michael Sam is doiing: sexuality, religion, custom, culture, laws, polarized knee-jerk politics, even race (consider the racial makeup of head-butting sports where machismo poses are all-in-all), and a yet deeper, ignorance-based HIV-paranoia, buried so far in stigma and misinformation that it makes the Martin/Zimmerman fiasco seem transparent by contrast.

The rightness of Sam’s declarations, including his taking pride [*] in himself and his actions, is defined by this one more step, taken as an individual, for normalization. For those who don’t understand the need for this or mistake it for victimization: normal, in this sense, equals visible. The INvisible is always the abnormal, the frightening, the unknown, the target, or the non-existent (so we don’t have to think about it, believe in it, deal with it). Look how popular monsters are since Pixar showed you what they look like and how much fun you can have with them! Becoming visible is never acceptable to those who haven’t seen you or didn’t want to see you before; you are suddenly standing in the way of their view of themselves and the world. That’s what Michael Sam is doing. Now he remains to be seen.

And it’s been a loooong time, since running back Dave Kopay complained that he couldn’t get a coaching job because of his sexual orientation (a not unreasonable assumption). Yes he did — bitch and moan, grunt and growl about it. Without any “activist” organization to back him up. Without a “gay community” of any kind. Without political agenda in his favor or the support of any law (and under threat of several). He’d had a solid nine-year NFL run starting in 1964 with the San Francisco 49ers, then Detroit Lions, Washington R_ _s_ _ _S (including a couple of years’ affair with teammate Jerry Smith, ’65-’77), New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers. In his case, it wasn’t the “coming out” that made him — okay, I’ll just stick my neck out and say it — an Ethics Hero for his time, it was in making a public complaint of discrimination forty-some years ago — with nothing to back him up. As an already proven coach during his playing days, the opening of his closet door had a direct correlation with the closing of job offers.

It was a normalizing act… not just as gay role modeling then (he never did get the hang of “gay” as it happens, even if he is today, at 71, a gay icon)… but to the NFL and the other contact sports, management and players, fans and families, having to recognize his visibility whether they accepted it or not. The thing about being visible is that after awhile, when a Michael Sam comes along, he’s not a major shock to the system, he’s already part of it. They may even be ready to let him play.
[*] Pride. This is used in the subjective, not the biblical sense, not the one that wenteth 2,000 years ago before the rise of reason, but the one that is a feeling of being worthy of being yourself. You know that pain scale with the smiley-to-frowny face that the nurse asks you to rate yourself on? That one? What you choose is what it is. And how much you feel it is. Yes, you can rate someone else’s pain if you have the hubris (or are a physician over 60, which is virtually the same thing) but that doesn’t make it legitimate. It isn’t your pain or your pride to define or to judge.

3 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “Ethics Hero: Michael Sam”

  1. My face is warm. Must be the limelight. Thank you for the honor, and the responses.

    Just for Jack:
    Out of left field a few days ago comes photographer Norm Coleman, a 78-year-old Brooklyn-born BASEball fan for whom young Michael Sam’s act was “courageous and strong” enough to convince him it was time to stop leading an uncomfortable double life.

    While Coleman, owner of a successful photography business isn’t, like Sam, risking his life’s career at this point, he has held close personal connections with pro managements (having done scouting-related work for various ball clubs); he has been enjoying success as author of a one-man show about Ty Cobb (“complicated and misunderstood”) that he performs in and around his home in Half Moon Bay; and he has family members who may or may not take kindly to revelations of his gay side. In fact, the emotional risks of coming out after living so many decades of adult life being not-yourself are exponentially greater than those at Sam’s age.

    What I found particularly intriguing about this news item was Coleman’s statement: “Baseball is even more difficult than football [when it comes to homophobia]. I can’t imagine a player coming out in baseball.” In other words, Coleman, a rabid Dodgers fan, never heard of Glenn Burke (L.A. Dodgers and Oakland A’s in the late 70s). Why not? Burke was not only out and loud about his homosexuality — to the front office, to his teammates, to the press, to anyone he was talking to — and it was an open secret in both the gay and baseball (separate or overlapping) worlds. But the information was never published or acknowledged to the general public … and so it didn’t penetrate closet doors like Coleman’s. The news took time to percolate through layers of self-censorship until guys like Michael Sam were ready to stand up. And make it possible for others to stand with them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.