On Saturday, May 10, with the 249th overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft the St Louis Rams selected Michael Sam, a 24-year old defensive end out of the University of Missouri. This selection, at the back end of the third day of the NFL draft, would normally not make waves.
But Michael Sam is a lot more famous that his draft status would have normally allowed him to be. In February he publicly came out as gay shortly after completing his college football career. He is now the first openly gay player drafted by a professional North American team and if he sees any playing time next season, a realistic possibility, he will become the first active NFL player to have publicly come out.
This is an historic event that should be welcomed by not only the sports world but by our society as a whole. The selection of Michael Sam comes a few months after Jason Collins, a current NBA player for the Brooklyn Nets, became the first active athlete to publicly come out as gay, 13 years in his sporting career. His first game since the announcement came on Monday, February 23, 2014 against the Los Angeles Lakers.
The world of sport is once again proving that it can be a fantastic, forward-thinking platform to help integrate minorities into society.
On April 15, 1947, years before Rosa Park refused to giver up her seat in an Alabama bus, becoming an icon of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, a baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers started 28-year old Jackie Robinson at first base. The Dodgers were the first major league team to start a black man since the 1880s, putting a de-facto end to racial segregation in baseball and in sports.
Sport can be a great mean to achieve an end, but cannot solve anything on its own. And that is why I think that the Michael Sam situation is extremely interesting. Sam has, on many occasions, repeated he wanted to be known as “Michael Sam the football player, not Michael Sam the gay football player”, a laudable choice, which makes the decisions he made since being drafted all the more puzzling.
On the day Sam was drafted he appeared on ESPN and NFL Network, at his home, receiving the call from the St Louis Rams announcing him that he was going to be part of the team. His family, and his boyfriend, were alongside him. He then kissed his boyfriend on national television, like another player would have kissed his girlfriend/ wife.
I liked this moment. I like this moment very much. It felt real, non-orchestrated and it shocked right-wing conservatives, much to my delight. This was a brilliant message addressed to those who have doubted his decision to come out.
But this should have been the end of that. Sam could have elegantly disappeared from the spotlight to focus on his football career and to try to make the Rams’ final roster, an uphill battle by all accounts.
Let’s face it, noise was going to happen around Sam regardless but he certainly did not do anything to quiet any of it.
A few days later, he took to Twitter to post a picture of him kissing his boyfriend's cake-smeared face. And then he announced that he had agreed to let OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, produce a multi-part documentary series on his life. He is the first openly gay player in the NFL, the most popular sports league in the United States. He doesn't need any help generating noise.
Backlash from NFL observers, and more importantly by teammates and people in the organisation, was immediate.
“It's an interesting case that he gets to work with Oprah and have his own show, but I think it does raise eyebrows and it may be somewhat of a distraction,” an anonymous teammate told Josina Anderson of ESPN.
“It all feels orchestrated now: the draft-day kiss; the cake-covered face; the tears; the celebration that conveniently captured just Sam, his boyfriend and his two agents; and even the "Stand with Sam" T-shirts selling onmichaelsam.com,” said Jason Whitlock, an ESPN columnist who had previously been vocal in support of Michael Sam.
And this is where the problem lies to me. It does not feel genuine anymore. It is no longer a feel-good story. It is starting to feel like Sam is going to try to profit from this newfound notoriety. But I believe he is doing himself, and the LGBT community, a disservice. He is further ostracising himself from the rest of his teammates.
I loved how the different media outlets covering the draft reacted to him being selected by St Louis, focusing exclusively on the football side of things, pointing out his strengths and his limitations as an athlete, rather than taking an unhealthy interest in the human-interest angle.
Sam said it himself; he is a football player, not a gay football player. He must now start to embrace it.