SOCHI, Russia – All-American defensive end Michael Sam is one very large piece of gay propaganda – at 255 pounds he might be arrested in Vladimir Putin’s Russia just for stepping on a scale. It’s a supreme irony of Sam’s coming-out that some people in the NFL are afraid to use their own names in talking about him and their Putin-like fears that he might “chemically imbalance” the fragile musky environment of male locker rooms. When is one of those guys going to come out? You got something to say, say it like a gay man.
Say it like Sam, the 24-year-old projected third-round draft prospect from Missouri, who announced on Sunday to ESPN and The New York Times, “I’m not afraid to tell the world who I am.” Or say it like Konstantin Yablotskiy, who is out in Moscow and trying to organize the first-ever Open Games there despite the menacingly vague anti-gay propaganda laws in this country that criminalize gays as pedophiles and jail them for public displays. “We are not protesters,” Yablotskiy said last week, or “marginal sodomites or abnormal.”
There are great courageous sports stories being played on the international stage at the Sochi Olympics, yet nothing has resonated like this. Sam’s watershed act has enormous destigmatizing significance, and resonates all the way to Russia, where government-driven anti-homosexuality forces gays to be silent at peril of arrest or a street beating. And where Putin – enabled by the cowardly International Olympic Committee – insists that the Winter Games is “not the time” to discuss their human rights.
Sam’s announcement moves the world one step toward the point where announcing you’re gay isn’t a “political” statement. It’s a particularly brave one since he made his announcement before the draft.
He is a walking character test for the NFL and he will put that test to everyone he comes into contact with. He’s going to challenge the locker room norm, going to challenge NFL executive myopia and challenge NFL players’ homophobia. We will find out who the modern Branch Rickeys are. Which players will act more like Pee Wee Reese and put an arm around him, and which will show their Dixie Walker side and demand to be traded rather than play alongside a gay man? Which team officials will be so lacking in character that they pass on him despite a legitimate need at defensive end?
One of the things that Sam just might accomplish when he is drafted and plays for an NFL team is rid the league of this nagging notion that an openly gay man will in some indefinable way taint his environment.
“There will be negativity, negative reactions,” he told ESPN. “I expect that. . . . Everyone can say hurtful things and hateful things; I don’t let stuff like that distract me. But there are going to be positives. The positives will outweigh the negative.”
Here is the main positive: He’s going to force everyone to be a little braver.
On Monday, NFL executives gave anonymous quotes about the potential effects of Sam’s open homosexuality in the locker room to Sports Illustrated, suggesting that outness is still an employment hazard in, as one put it, a “man’s man’s game.” Drafting him will be a risk, they say, because “There’s nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of the locker room.” No doubt they’re speaking the truth. The Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito relationship showed us the reality that NFL teammates can lunge with wolfish fangs at any perceived weakness, and then call it banter. But that doesn’t make it healthy.
How is it that supposedly tough American football executives and athletes can subscribe to anonymity for fear of repercussion – while expressing the view that it’s better for their community to keep gays closeted because they might affect a team’s competitive heart?
We will find out who is expressing support for Sam as just a convenient public stance, the pat vocabulary of acceptance pandering to the corporate sponsors, and who is willing to genuinely change the culture of their organizations beyond the cameras.
Make no mistake, Sam will be under pressure from gays, too. The danger with aligning himself with any broad-brushed “community” is that pretty soon some people will be telling him there is a right and a wrong way to be gay. He will find out what all public performers in all fields know, that an audience can be highly proprietary, sometimes in an ugly way. As Jodie Foster once wrote in Esquire, “I can be rejected for physical reality, the audience’s perception of who I am. Consequently, I become the property of my judges.”
But Sam can figure all that out for himself. He is 255 pounds of social courage, the definition of which is the resolve to put your name to something, regardless of possible rejection. It’s a quality there is precious little of in the world, and particularly in the NFL, which supposedly prides itself on valor and values.
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.