Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Michael Sam challenging NFL to tear down sports’ last wall

We move slowly as a society, don’t we? No matter the magnitude or urgency, we are unhurried. When we do change, we do it grudgingly, and then, perhaps decades later, we allow ourselves to finally admit how insane it was that it took so long — or that we were ever like that at all.

Women couldn’t vote, once. Susan B. Anthony, second-class citizen, made changing that her life’s work in the late 19th century. Society accepted what was illogical, but there were enough who stood up to foment eventual change. Anthony did not live to see women cast their first votes in a U.S. presidential election in 1920.

Black Americans didn’t have basic civil rights, once. Martin Luther King Jr., second-class citizen, made changing that his life’s work in the mid-20th century. Society accepted what was blatantly unfair, but enough stood to make change eventually come. King lived to see the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, and paid for it with his life.

Can you imagine, now, that women once had to fight for the right to vote? Or that blacks had to fight for simple fairness and the most basic human rights?

I wonder if we’ll look back, many years from now, and similarly mention Michael Sam as a champion of gay equality? And wonder why it took us so long?

Sociology professor in a university classroom, 50 years hence:

“I know it’s hard to believe, now, but once there was such prejudging of gays in this country that, as recently as 2014, it made major national news when a college football player declared his homosexuality in advance of the NFL Draft.”

“Can you imagine? Once we wondered if something as trivial as a sports locker room could stand the culture shock!”

Michael Sam was a University of Missouri defensive lineman, an All-American, the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year.

Now he is something entirely different, much bigger.

He is a cause célèbre. A symbol.

In making public his homosexuality (something his college teammates already knew about), Sam has put himself in position to become the first openly gay active player in the macho-to-a-fault NFL.

His life’s story is intriguing. The seventh of eight kids, Sam has seen one older brother die of gunshot wounds, another has been missing since 1998, and two others are in prison. He is the first member of his family to go to college.

But now his sexual orientation is the only part of his story that seems to matter.

Sam may or may not have a future in the NFL, but the fact he would be the first openly gay man trying will bring him a hundred times the attention, and pressure, that he’d otherwise have as a marginal prospect.

Is sports ready for this, let alone the biggest team sport in America?

We’ve known after the fact that several closeted gay men have played in the NFL, and some likely do today, but Sam would be the first to bring with him the attention and distraction of it. NFL teams are terribly pragmatic — Can he help us win? — but Sam could push the boundaries of that pragmatism.

He has gone all in. It is the NFL’s move now.

(Quick aside: Sam has long been pegged only a likely mid-round draft pick, so do not blame his public revelation if he isn’t selected until, say, the fourth round. If he isn’t drafted at all — then you may cite his sexual orientation as a reason without equivocation. An anonymous NFL executive already has told Sports Illustrated that Sam’s admission will hurt his draft standing).

The player’s honesty has been met with the expected attention, controversy and extreme reaction in either direction.

To many he is brave, heroic, a latter-day Jackie Robinson.

First Lady Michelle Obama called Sam an “inspiration.”

Former NBA player John Amaechi, who came out as gay after his playing days, thanked Sam and quoted William Shakespeare in a Tweet to him: “How far that little candle throws his beam! So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

Even former Dolphin Richie Incognito conveyed support, saying, “It takes guts to do what you did. I wish you nothing but the best.” The irony there, of course, is that Incognito, in the “Bullygate” mess with Jonathan Martin, personifies the NFL’s Neanderthal locker-room culture that is the greatest challenge to an openly gay player.

Not all have supported Sam’s honesty. Folks less open-minded, the ones who make the world weary, also have been represented in their reaction, referring to Sam as a deragatory term for homosexuals who should-a stayed in the closet where he belongs, hiding.

One can’t even watch the Winter Olympics without continuing prejudice against gays arising as an issue, given host country Russia’s anti-gay “propoganda” law that restricts the rights of homosexuals.

It’s been the polar reaction to Sam’s coming out — hero or villain — that I find fascinating. Those at the forefront always have to be labeled. They are god-like to supporters, and the devil to detractors. They can never just be regular people trying to live regular lives.

Susan B. Anthony before she was a crusader was just a person wondering why she didn’t have the same rights a man did.

Martin Luther King was incredulous and angry that Rosa Parks was expected to sit in the back of the bus — because somebody had to be incredulous and angry.

Now Michael Sam is positioned on a pedestal or vilified when all he’s trying to do is make a living in the game he loves and be honest with himself, all at once.

Women were lesser than men. Blacks were lesser than whites. And the same geniuses who tried to tell us all that try to tell us gays are lesser than straights.

Aren’t we tired of prejudice yet? Aren’t we sick of it?

As I consider the potential impact of Michael Sam I recall a memorable moment of the Reagan presidency regarding the Berlin Wall, when in 1987 his advice to Mikhail Gorbachev was, “Tear down this wall!”

Sam is just a young man being true to himself, with no such defiance or demand.

It is implied, though.

The message in the timing of his truthfulness is unspoken, yet clear.

The NFL and sports in general have been the closed society, the last bastion where anti-gay sentiment has somehow had tacit approval.

Now, at last, it is almost time:

“Tear down this wall!”

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