The most charitable explanation for Michael Sam’s disastrous performance in the wake of the NFL draft is that he’s a young man who got terrible advice. A less charitable theory is that he’s an idiot. The worst theory of all is that Michael Sam is less interested in being the first openly gay pro-football player who blazes a clear path for those who follow him, and more concerned about becoming a gay icon, or worse, a martyr. Whatever the reason, Sam accepted the massive responsibility of being a cultural trailblazer, and fumbled the ball.
Sam wasn’t the best player in the NFL draft, but everyone knew, including Sam, that he would be the most closely watched. He had “come out” as gay soon after the college football season, and in light of his prominence and recognition as a stand-out athlete, his honesty and openness about his sexual orientation was hailed as a cultural turning point, an advance for gay Americans, and a test for the macho NFL. Would he be drafted? If he wasn’t (or was?), would it be because he was gay? ESPN’s cameras were in the Missouri defensive end’s home Saturday as the drafts neared its final stages with Sam name still uncalled. When St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher called Sam at his agent’s house in San Diego to tell the former University of Missouri defensive lineman that they had selected him in the seventh and last round of the draft, it was instant drama.
There was more drama, in fact, than ESPN and viewers probably expected. Sam burst into tears while receiving the call, and then received an emotional, mouth-t0-mouth kiss from his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Actually, there is; several, in fact. To begin with, Sam had violated the Second Niggardly Principle, which states,
“When an individual or group can accomplish its legitimate objectives without engaging in speech or conduct that will offend individuals whose basis for the supposed offense is emotional, mistaken or ignorant, but is not malicious and is based on well-established impulses of human nature, it is unethical to intentionally engage in such speech or conduct.”
A clearer example of the SNP would be hard to find. No doubt about it, most heterosexual Americans, which means most of the public, are not used to seeing adult men kissing each other on the lips. There is no question that Sam knows this: of course he does. Even now, popular culture uses the image for shock value; it was only the 90’s when an impulsive lip-lock from Kramer on Jerry drove the studio audience to screams of laughter. No, there’s nothing “wrong” with two men kissing each other, but an awful lot of people were raised to think it is unnatural, and it is wrong to intentionally or negligently offend or upset them gratuitously. It is the flip side of tolerance: consideration and etiquette. Causing discomfort just because you can, or because your targets “deserve” or “need” to feel uncomfortable is just trouble-making for the hell of it. “Deal with it!” is confrontational and aimed at creating rancor, not comity.
The stakes for Sam, however, make his conduct irresponsible as well as pointlessly divisive. When he announced that he was gay, Sam accepted the mantle of a trailblazer, an exemplar, the champion of a wrongfully oppressed minority that would now look to him to disprove negative stereotypes. That vital role is one that cannot and must not be taken on impulsively or without preparation, for it carries with it many obligations. One of them is to be successful. The template for all trailblazers was Jackie Robinson, the baseball great who shattered that sport’s race barrier, and advanced the civil rights movement far beyond sports. He was told (by Branch Rickey, the baseball executive who engineered his rise) that as the first black player to set foot on a major league field, he would have to be perfect, literally perfect, or as close to perfection as he could manage, or he would set his race back in its fight for equality and acceptance. Robinson understood, and because he was intelligent, courageous, and possessed extraordinary discipline and talent, he avoided words or conduct that bolstered the prejudice of bigots and others in baseball, the media and the public who believed that blacks couldn’t compete with white players because they were “different.” The only difference Jackie Robinson displayed publicly was his skin-color, which he couldn’t hide, and his superior ability.
The undeniable wisdom of this approach to trailblazing, in sports or in any field, should be self-evident. The rationale is that important change has to come in stages. Twenty years after Robinson integrated baseball, black stars who dared to engage in what was seen as stereotypical behavior triggered racist respnses in the press and among fans, causing public relations headaches for their teams. George Scott, a power-hitting Red Sox first baseman in the Sixties and Seventies, proclaimed his love of fried chicken, and was instantly ridiculed as “Chicken George.” If Robinson had tripped on teh same landmine, Scott might not have had a chance to play in Boston at all. It doesn’t matter that this is irrational, or wrong, or ignorant: being a trailblazer involves accomplishing an important goal affecting millions of people. One should do it competently and responsibly, or not take on the role at all.
Football fans being reluctant to accept that a gay man can be a successful pro football player is the current obstacle that Sam committed himself to achieving. Fans, the press and the NFL itself being comfortable with a player who acts gay is a different challenge entirely, and one that jeopardizes the current one, which must be accomplished first, or the other obstacles to acceptance and equality will be delayed or not achieved at all.
It is inconceivable to me that Sam didn’t understand this, but either he did not, or didn’t care. Predictably, the worlds of the NFL, sports and American culture were turned upside-down by the male-on-male liplock. Some players reacted negatively on Twitter. One player was fined for a Twitter response that amounted to “Ewwww!,” which was what a majority of football fans were thinking. Steven Smith, ESPN’s loud and opinionated black commentator, pronounced the kiss “dangerous,” and said the he respected the fans who didn’t want Sam’s sexual orientation thrust in their face.
It is fine for Sam’s supporters to say that he shouldn’t yield to irrational bias, and if heterosexual players can kiss their wives and girlfriends on camera, then he should be able to as well. Yes, and he should have been able to wait for the big call wearing eyeliner and hot pants, with a giant poster of the Chippendales on hos wall, too—if he doesn’t care whether he gets to play in the NFL or not. That, after all, is the primary objective for a gay trailblazer, or should be.
What Sam did instead is undermine any trust that an NFL team might have that he would not allow his sexuality to get in the way of being successful on the football field. As a seventh round draft pick, it was going to be difficult for Sam to succeed as a trailblazer, because he just might not be good enough. Now, thanks to his own lack of common sense, restraint, prudence and responsibility, I think his task is impossible. Everyone will blame bias, and maybe that’s what Sam wants.
He sabotaged himself, however, and other athletes, and gays who are not athletes as well, will suffer because of it.