Michael Sam Flunks Trailblazer Ethics, And Many Will Suffer Because Of It

Sam kiss

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.


Facts: Washington Post, Mediaite, Daily News, Deadspin

42 thoughts on “Michael Sam Flunks Trailblazer Ethics, And Many Will Suffer Because Of It

  1. He shouldn’t complain later if a bunch of us are at the Meadowlands when the Rams play the Giants and wave signs that make jokes about tight ends and wide receivers and chant “He’s big! He’s black! He takes it up his crack!” He made it an issue.

  2. Next: pre-game or post-game marriage ceremonies in the ballpark, joining players and their partners. Why stop at kissing, when there are crotches to grab and heinies to hump for all to see? NFL players are quite virile guys, for the most part, according to evidence. I don’t expect them to hold back, er, restrain themselves, I mean.

  3. Well, I’m not sure he’s any kind of actual trailblazer to begin with in the objective reality not created by ESPN. “The 247th or whatever pick in the NFL draft likes to have sex with a certain kind of person” probably shouldn’t be news in any context. I thought that was something everyone could agree on.

    Secondly, in 2014 I don’t feel like I can trust anything that happens in front of TV cameras, especially something with this much lead-time. Like Ellen’s fake “spontaneous” selfie, I’m going to just assume that it’s just as likely as not that GLAAD or someone may have coached Sam for this moment weeks in advance, and it’s even possible that money exchanged hands. And so Sam might not be solely responsible here.

    And anyway, two same-gender people kissing may or may not be off-putting because people were “raised” to see it as so, but the default and logical explanation should be that it’s seen as “unnatural” because of standard biochemistry. It doesn’t need to be attributed to anything else (Occam’s razor), and it’s more likely that acceptance/happiness over watching two guys make out is the product of cultural conditioning than the reverse. Heterosexual youngsters tend to become averse to watching homosexual kissing at about the same age that they stop believing in cooties, whether or not their parents have ever had anything to say about it. If the goal is to train the mind to veto the body and enjoy said visual (much like teaching an American to appreciate escargot), then just come out and say that. That doesn’t necessarily make it an unworthy aim.

    I don’t like the idea of framing the debate in the same terms as the debate over racism (wherein cultural conditioning was truly to blame and cultural/social study bore that out) when there’s really an entirely different dynamic here. It’s dishonest, even if done in the service of what is seen as a good cause or in the desire to be saying the “right” things.

  4. 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.

    But that’s wrong, too. For someone of my cultural background, any public display of affection is deeply disturbing (remember, we’re talking about emotional reactions here). So the message he’s sending us isn’t “he should be able to as well” but “homosexuals are entitled to more consideration than heterosexuals” – and that is even more counter-productive if what he is after is acceptance.

    • Nor can anyone gain acceptance for their lifestyle if they refrained from doing anything where anyone might find it offensive or think “Ewwww!”. If you want to live in a free country you should occasionally expect to come across things you don’t like.

      • Oh, that’s right – like that guy, Tim, who Tebowed so much.

        Or is it, “If you want to live in a free country, you should occasionally expect to suffer limits to your freedom, whether you like them or not”?

        • After initial resistance, I think the Tebow comparison is valid. No NFL players were disciplined for mocking Tebow, and I see no difference at all between mocking a gay player for a public liplock and a mocking a player for over-the-top on field religiosity. Either the League protects both players from criticism, or neither. Again, a double standard. And would the mockery of Tebow been tamped down by the NFL if he were a black Baptist? My guess: yes.

          • Because the more melanin you have in you, the more protection you are entitled to under the law. And silly us, the state of gayness, which a lot of folks thought was unholy up to now, is really a SPECIAL state of blessedness entitled to not only be protected, but pushed forward and celebrated at all costs.

          • Jack: You’ve got to be kidding! First off; race has nothing to do with this. This is about an NFL draftee openly displaying his depravity on a day that, to many, is iconic to all the best that the NFL once stood for. Young men; the cream of the college ranks, coming forth to prove their worth against seasoned professionals in the greatest game of all time. Sam managed to drag the entire moment down into the sewer that he and his “partner” use as their domicile. But to compare this to someone like Tim Tebow, who represents what was once the ideal athlete in terms of performance coupled with the highest of personal values through Christ… that’s just obscene. There is no comparison, except that of diametric opposites.

            • I was referring to double standards, and race is one of many characteristics that allows public figures to benefit from them in certain contexts. I repeat: Tebow would have been insulated by the NFL, the news media and others, from most public criticism and ridicule if he were black.

  5. The Alejandro Villanueva story would be one more worthy of the media’s attention then Sam. As with the first black President too many put more credence in the idea of something, in the name of “progress”, then recognizing accomplishment.

  6. and in light of his prominence and recognition as a stand-out athlete

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t he kinda tank in that lil exhibition day they had for a bunch of the athletes?

  7. Also, it isn’t the kissing that bothered me quite so much as the loud, gasping, nearly violent sobbing…

    I mean, jesus fuck I get it, you’re gay. Turn it down from 11, would you?

    • They can’t – it’s all about turning it up to 12 and forcing everyone else to say FAAAAAABULOUS under pain of loss of livelihood.

            • Think about it. Sams has shown that he’s going to unprofessional and carry a giant “I’m gay!” neon billboard 24-7, and try to make himself a martyr and hero. And he’s not very smart about it. What hell can he put the team through between now and cutting time? If he isn’t a stone-cold standout in camp, he’s gone. If fact, I think that’s his plan…so much easier than really trying and risking failure.

              Makes me admire Jackie R that much more.

          • Dan “fuck you, fuck everyone who doesn’t agree with me” Savage has legions of followers who are just as nasty and have not half the brains he has, nor ANY sense of restraint. There will be a torrent of digital ink spilled if the Rams cut him. The sooner someone puts a bullet in that hate-spewer’s brain, the better.

            • Oh, sure, I wasn’t counting Dan’s fans. But I think everyone but Dan and a few fire-breathers will agree, when Sams is cut, that he made it easy for the Rams, and that they had little choice. He’s not up to the role of being a trailblazer, and wise gays will recognize it too. The Oprah thing is beyond belief. I though it was an Onion parody.

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