The Michael Sam Botch: Back To Square One…Or Worse.

You must remember this: A kiss can be a miss...

You must remember this: A kiss can be a miss…

Sportswriters are gamely putting a positive spin on it, but they are lying or deluded: Michael Sam’s failure to make the St. Louis Rams squad and the subsequent decision of every other team (there are 32 of them) to pass on his services as well means that Sam’s quest to become the first openly gay player to be drafted by and make the roster of a pro football team was not just a failure, but may have even set his cause back a year or ten.

Or maybe that wasn’t his cause at all. Maybe a gay player whose skills left him a borderline draftee at best made a calculated decision that his best chance was to shame the NFL into drafting him by announcing his sexual orientation, and gamble that he could shine enough in camp to make the team. The genius of this strategy, if that’s what it was, is that even if he didn’t make the team, Sam would become a celebrity, and in some circles, an icon.

Well, that part worked. What doomed the rest of the plan were, in order of importance,

  • Sam isn’t good enough to be a trailblazer.
  • The media made certain that such a big deal was made over Sam’s sex life that no NFL team could avoid wondering, “How much will having this guy around get in the way of winning football games?” From Ethics Alarms in February:

The irony is that it is the mostly positive media obsession with Sam’s status as a potential trailblazer, rather than the anti-gay 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.

They couldn’t help themselves, of course, and sure enough, Sam was doomed.

“Football teams want to win and make money, ” I wrote. “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.”

  • Sam’s messy liplock on his partner in response to his last-minute drafting by the Rams was a terrible miscalculation—stupid, really—that had Rams executives rolling their eyes and counting the days until they could cut him.

So now what? My guess is that no player of Sam’s dubious NFL potential will dare coming out until gay players are openly flourishing in NFL stadiums, and who knows when, or if, that will happen? If there is a sure-shot first round draft prospect, one good enough to be football’s gay Jackie Robinson, who chooses to risk a near certain pro career and the millions that come with it, that would mean real, rather than illusory progress for gay rights, but such a scenario requires a convergence of factors that are far from certain to occur soon–great player, gay player, gutsy gay player. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The sad reality is that Michael Sam hurt, rather than advanced, the gay rights movement in professional sports.

25 thoughts on “The Michael Sam Botch: Back To Square One…Or Worse.

  1. The first lesson in being a trailblazer is to make sure that you deliver that which is expected of any other member of the society or group you wish to become part. By doing so you will effectively negate any of the arguments others may hurl against you when you establish what or who you are.

    There is no question that Jackie Robinson could not hide the fact that he was of a different race but Jackie Robinson did not set out to make a name for himself as the first African American in baseball – he played for the love of the game and showcased his talents on the field. The same is true for Rosa Parks, John Kennedy (first Catholic president), Sally Ride (first women in space), Amelia Earhart, and others that had a dream and went about trying to accomplish it. None of them to my knowledge made a plan to be the first (fill-in-the-blank) anything. Perhaps Charles Lindbergh did but the prize money was a significant motivation behind his achievement. Someone will always be the first at something worthwhile. Some will be the first at doing something stupid as well. What is important in any worthwhile endeavor is not to be the last (fill-in-the-blank).

    I for one do not need to know what the sexual preference is of my co-worker, an athlete, movie star or even my neighbor. It has no bearing on whether or not I am successful at a fulfilling life. Therefore, I have no desire to read about it, hear about it, or have it paraded in front of me merely to highlight someone else’s agenda who use others to mitigate the social risk to themselves or to create the illusion of being progressive. They are no better than the hawks of war who are insulated from the carnage they see as necessary.

    Only performance matters.

    • Rosa Parks was selected for her role in being a test case (by the ACLU, if memory serves.)

      Re: “I for one do not need to know…” <– Your second paragraph contradicts the first. If you acknowledge the existence of trailblazers, then it is implicit that you acknowledge that the sexual orientation of some people is more significant, when mentioned, than of others.

      • Yes, Rosa Park does not quite fit the list of “trailblazers”. She refused to sit in the back only when she had a battery of lawyers ready to challenge any consequences.

        However, Chris does not contradict himself. His argument is that such an individual must meet or exceed the expectations of the role. They need to prove they are worthy for the role. Only if they are worthy can they publicly proclaim their status as a trailblazer.

        For instance, Robinson demonstrated sufficient talent in the Negro Leagues to show he could play in the Major Leagues. Kennedy was elected despite his Catholicism, because he demonstrated himself an able politician. These were otherwise qualified individuals – looking at their statistics or resumes without the racial or religious qualifier, they would still meet their profession’s needs. As Chris said, he would NOT “need to know” their race or religion to determine they were qualified.

        Status as trailblazers is important, because it proves that whatever bias is against them is not in fact a barrier to being qualified. An unqualified member of a group expecting special treatment due to his affiliation hurts his cause by suggesting the bias is justified.

  2. Your post about how Sam flunks trailblazer ethics appears to be clearly applying a double standard to Sam. It seems that you are saying that a person’s actions can be measured differently based on context. In his case, the context was _who_ he was while engaging in actions that would have been acceptable for someone else. In particular, he is a member of an oppressed minority group.

    You have previously written on this blog that a double standard is “always unethical.” I do not think you really believe that.

    • Trailblazers accept and demand a different standard. It’s not a double standard if the circumstances are completely different, and a trialblazer’s are very different: they have to prove something.

      I have always argued, for example, that elected officials,celebrities and role models must be held to a higher standard of conduct—the Role Model’s Standard, if you like. A double standard has no integrity, and is when lesser or greater standards are applied as a means of oppression, favoritism, denigration or social control. For example, here, I write about permitting bigoted statements from blacks that are career ruination for whites. Since the whole objective of the civil rights movement is to establish whites and blacks as equal, a double standard has no productive purpose, is illogical, divisive, and hypocritical. But trailblazers, are not the same as everyone else. They are trailblazers, whose purpose is to prove they who have been treated as inferior and undesirable in a profession or organization are in fact worthy, which means that the trailblazer has no margin for error at all.

      I think your comment is disingenuous, ignoring a key distinction that you actually understand completely. I don’t appreciate it.

  3. Jack: Please do not continue using the phrase you used in this post, “…gay Jackie Robinson.” Imagine that your own father was a trailblazer in some way, and then consider someone else’s use of the phrase “gay Jack Marshall Sr.” Why do I think you would object to that? I wonder what Jackie’s widow and kids might think…

    It matters not how grotesquely and brutally hatred has been perpetrated for how many centuries and against no matter how many undeserving sexual minority victims. Until the whole world can read true stories of thousands of homosexuals abducted and imprisoned by their own – then, chained together like cordwood in the holds of wooden sailing ships for transport en masse across an ocean, only (if they survived that) to be bought, sold, controlled, exploited and abused like pack mules for generations – only then might it be appropriate to refer to milestones in enlightened treatment of formerly oppressed sexual minorities (whether they are trailblazers or not) on par with milestones in enlightened treatment of people oppressed through a history of slavery and racism.

    • “Until the whole world can read true stories of thousands of homosexuals abducted and imprisoned by their own “

      Is that accurate?

      I thought the slaves were primarilyy Black-African victims of Muslim-Arab slavers…

      • We both already know that you are the better historian, so I am not going to argue with you. You’re probably right. But I thought I had read an accurate account that slavery, being practiced by tribes through the spoils of inter-tribal warfare, was a “popular” and convenient way for one tribe to be rid of another, rival tribe’s forces. Whether a warring tribe actively assisted Muslim-Arab traders in a “win-win,” I don’t know.

        • Yes, they did. As an aside, Swahili is not a native language. It is a made-up language, a bit like Spanglish, developed by Arab traders so that they could talk to African vic…er, uh, customers.

        • That may be a chicken and egg thing…

          Did the Islamic penchant for slavery encourage the tribes to sell off their POWs?

          Or did the tribal practices just happen to line up with Islamic ethics nicely?

          But I think we’re both right, it was the result of tribal practices in West Africa, I just seem to recall reading is primarily Muslims preying on other African tribes.

  4. Perhaps I read the whole incident differently when he came out to the world in February. From what I recall, he announced his sexual orientation prior to the draft because someone was going to out him.

    That being said, I never bought the trailblazing argument from the outset. It seemed like a calculated move to improve his position in the draft, which seemed cynical to me: “Draft me or face the threat of LGBT community.” His combine performance was less than spectacular and his preseason play was flat. The Rams cut him because he didn’t produce the expected numbers. Shouldn’t that be cause for celebration? He was treated fairly and equally. If he had been kept on the roster after mediocre performances, wouldn’t that send a message to the LGBT community that identity politics is more important to the game than performance?

    Jackie Robinson was a trailblazer because he was Black but more importantly because he was an excellent baseball player. For instance, Mo’ne Davis is trailblazer because she is a girl who can pitch in the Little League just like other pitchers. She was not given a different strike zone or more pitch counts, and she produced amazing numbers compared to other pitchers. She is an excellent pitcher who happens to be a girl, not a girl who happens to be an excellent pitcher. She has a huge fastball and left lots of batters in the dust.


    • John, part of the problem is that the LGBT community ALREADY BELIEVES that sexual identity politics is more important to this (or any other) game. At the moment, less than 4% of the total population of this country identifies with the LGBT community, yet entire definitions of behaviors are being changed to suit them. This in no way equates with 14% of the population being black, or 60% of the population being female (not even a minority).

  5. I know I emailed to say I wasn’t coming back, but I think you’re off on two things:

    First, Sam is actually pretty good. If The Rams weren’t ridiculously stacked at defensive end, he’d have made the team. Pre-season stats are much silliness, but he was playing with the first and second teams, against first and second teams, and was more than serviceable. He was just unlucky to be drafted by the Rams. Being an undrafted free agent would have been much better for him. He’s also now found a home on the Cowboys practice squad. I know you’re not a big NFL fan, so here’s a digression into what that means.

    NFL teams have a 53 man roster. They can also have up to 10 players on their practice squad (up from 8 last year). The practice squad serves three main functions. First, there’s practice (obviously). Other than the roster, only members of the practice squad can practice with the team. These players are needed for bodies for drills, and can have the task of mimicking a star player on an upcoming team. Second, the practice squad functions as a developmental location. There’s no triple A ball and no NBA D league. Yes, there’s Arena football, the CFL, and the like, but players rarely move from those leagues to the NFL. Football is considerably more system dependent than Baseball or Basketball. Even star players often have difficulty learning their assignments when moving from one team to another, and that’s with an entire off-season of studying the playbook and entire camp of two-a-days and film study. My third point was touched on during the second point. Once you get past the first couple weeks of the season, dozens of players are signed off the practice squad for a week or two. NFL teams are allowed to have 46 active players each week. Football is also incredibly physically dangerous. By midseason, a team that has 46 of it’s original 53 man roster healthy would be incredibly lucky. Even if a team does have enough healthy players on their roster, football is so specialized, that players can’t slide around and play many positions. If 3 linebackers are hurt, a LB is gonna get signed off the practice squad for a game, as, at least, insurance against in-game linebacker injuries.

    Some players hang around practice squads for a few years, but for the most part, practice squads are filled with players a year or two out of college, whom teams think have the potential to be starters, at least. Teams don’t waste a practice squad spot on someone unless they think they can help the team. The spots are too precious.

    Basically, while Sam isn’t Jackie Robinson yet, he’s more than slightly good.

    Second, I don’t believe that a star trailblazer is necessary here. While it was certainly a huge help that Jackie Robinson was an amazing player, the incremental approach has also worked for discrimination. Yes, Sam created a media storm, but his example also showed that that was all it was. Sam didn’t face the abuse that Jackie Robinson did. Players and fans aren’t constantly sneering, calling him a faggot, and being wantonly cruel. Abuse is the exception, not the norm. Robinson had to be so good because he was inundated with horribleness; Sam had an institutional barrior, but the opposition wasn’t nearly as large or rabid. Yes there was a media circus, but that circus didn’t mimic reality on the ground like it did for Robinson. Chris Long (one the DE stars ahead of Sam) said it best: “Dear ESPN, Everyone but you is over it.”

    Instead of a step back, Sam has shown that his sexuality isn’t that big of a deal. I think the next gay player to come out pre-draft or while on a team is going to face considerably less of a media storm.

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