Michael Sam Can Still Be a Hero in a Football-Free Household
I am a firm believer that professional football is a poison specifically harming the black community. Period. While that stands as a hard truth for me, I find Michael Sam’s presence on the St. Louis Rams roster heartening and necessary. It doesn’t change my opinion of the sport but it does give me hope that the NFL may change from the inside out in the very near future.
Michael Sam made news this year when he came out as gay publicly in his senior year at the University of Missouri. His teammates and coaches already knew, but he wanted to share it with the larger public. Immediately following his announcement, there were asinine questions about whether or not the NFL was “ready” for an openly gay player. Judgements about how this would impact locker rooms and “masculinity” in the sport abounded. But, Sam was courageous in sharing his story.
Following this news, the 6’2″, 260 pound player dropped from a sure thing third round draft pick to a 50-50 chance draft. Unsure of whether or not he would get the chance to live out his dreams in the NFL, Sam went into the draft last week feeling hopeful. He ended up being picked for the Rams in the seventh and final round of the draft. Not a highly coveted position from the top down, it was a symbolic position nonetheless.
His boyfriend was there with him. They embraced as two people in love should. All was well. Right?
Sadly, the conversations about Sam’s kiss and his reality show on Oprah’s network OWN have overshadowed what this young man has done. He literally looked white-hetero society in the face and said, “nope.” While I agree that the hype about him might be a bit overblown – because who wants to be gawked at forever – it is totally understandable why people are gawking in the first place. Sam represents folks who identify as LGBTQ in the best way. He is not a stereotype. He is not a caricature. He is not some stylized version of himself. He is just a young man who wants to play football.
Personally, I think that is important. Yet, part of me hopes he will also turn his gaze to the ongoing issues the NFL has with safety. The fact remains that football is hazardous to say the least. In our household, we are continually unabashed about the risks in any social circles we travel partly because of the denial and subversive behavior of NFL fans. When the time comes we will warn our sons that suicide and concussions are no way to experience an honest days’ work. And with brains as awesome as theirs, we would hate for them to sacrifice their potential.
American popular culture seems counter-intuitive in many ways when it comes to the sport. We are all about freedom, equality, and individualism but one of our longstanding pastimes is the barbaric practice of men headbutting each other and trying to inflict bodily harm. Meanwhile, we each are spoon-fed the message that we have to like the sport or somehow we are un-American. Seems odd to me that we would teach our boys that this is best course for them as opposed to innovation, creation, and material contributions to society all in the name of manhood.
Sadly, many young black men and women are socialized to believe that sports are the only means to social mobility. They often forego book smarts for field or court smarts as they try to use their “God-given” physical talent to secure a better future for their families. We don’t subscribe to those social messages in our household. While both of our sons will likely reach over six-feet-tall and physically benefit from the brawny frames of their forefathers, we preside over a football-free household. We do so unapologetically.
I hope that Michael Sam can take this extremely visible and influential platform he now has to challenge the societal notions of masculinity and manhood. Not just for the LGBTQ community but for young men and women of color too. Far too often, manhood is wrapped up in physical violence and one’s ability to defeat others. While I know Sam can’t change the fundamentals of football as a sport, he can certainly engage in critical dialogue about how the NFL devalues players suffering from the physical consequences of their business and downplays the mental anguish these men endure just to line the pockets of rich white owners. He can also help young people of color to understand that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being true to yourself – even when it isn’t popular to be so.
After the Richard Sherman dragging, it became crystal clear that there are many racialized and gendered ills which emote from the institution that is the NFL. Sometimes, becoming a part of it makes us more well-versed in articulating the issues affecting it. For me, I had to endure atrocities in Corporate America so that I could understand why my activism had to include anti-corporatism.
Since Michael Sam comes from a dual minority background (black and gay), I am hoping that he will leverage his experience in the league to do some good for those who are to come after him. He has already started just by existing. I’m watching to see what exactly he does next.
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