Michael Sam gave us one of the more significant moments in American sports history on Saturday night.
Then Sam and his boyfriend gave us one of the more significant moments in American cultural history.
It would have been enough of an earthquake to see Sam become the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL, but by kissing his boyfriend on national television, in an embrace that will be replayed constantly over the coming days and weeks, Sam took a whack at an even bigger barrier to acceptance.
What comes next will be difficult, maybe painful at times. But first, let's try to grasp the importance of what has just happened.
Sam was picked in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams and head coach Jeff Fisher, who is also the respected leader of the league's competition committee. It was something that many thought would never happen, as football is a world of male bravado, where homosexuality is often feared, shunned and worse.
Throughout the afternoon, as college players with lesser credentials were selected, concern and anger grew on social media that Sam would be completely passed up. The draft was owned by the SEC, which averaged 3.5 picks per school, and Sam was the co-defensive player of the year in the SEC. How could a player that decorated – an unquestioned leader of a top team – be left out after teams drafted a player with multiple suspensions from his college team (Seantrel Henderson), a player who is expected to be charged with multiple counts of assault later this month (Taylor Lewan) and a player who pleaded guilty to multiple counts of sexual battery (Zach Mettenberger)?
Sam was picked too low, but he was picked, and that's the history that he and the Rams have authored. He was drafted because he can play.
"It'll be exciting to meet him," said new teammate Demetrius Rhaney, who was picked one slot after Sam at No. 250. "I got a call from [Rams general manager] Les Snead, and he told me they were picking somebody 249 and he'd call me right after that. I didn't know who it was."
It was Sam. Cameras showed the Missouri star taking the call from St. Louis, breaking down in tears, clutching his boyfriend's hand, and doubling over in overwhelming joy. It was, like so many other NFL draft snapshots, a beautifully human scene.
What happened next was also beautifully human, but it wasn't something that many feel comfortable seeing: Sam kissing his boyfriend.
It would have been normal and expected if Sam's partner was a woman, but this is a society where it's still rare to see men kissing on television or in the movies. (It was considered scandalous a few years ago when Madonna kissed Britney Spears on national TV.) Even many of those who support gay marriage do not want to see public displays of affection between men, and many football players are terrified not so much of having a gay teammate but of the behavior of that teammate. There's a reason that gay people who have not come out are considered "closeted": they don't want to show it, and nobody wants to see it.
Michael Sam is not closeted in any sense. He is not ashamed of who he is, of who he spends his private time with or of who might be gawking. That trait is perfect for football.
The worst thing you can be on a football field is fearful. Bravery is more important to winning and acceptance than any 40-yard dash time or any vertical jump. Sam showed it earlier this year when he came out, and he showed it again on Saturday night. He's unafraid to change the world by challenging the world.
this is a lofty assumption considering he's a seventh-round selection – the Rams and their opponents and NFL fans will be interacting with a man who is comfortable with who he is and the discomfort he may cause. Sam will not go along to get along. He won't hide in the locker room any more than he hides on the field. That's not to say he'll be a dreaded "distraction" – a code word for "other" in the conservative NFL. He'll just be Michael Sam, forging a path as a person, a football player, a boyfriend and a citizen. If the people around him accept him, it's more likely the rest of the world will accept the next openly gay football player.Assuming he makes the team – and
Fellow Rams rookie Lamarcus Joyner, who describes himself as a "big Christian believer," had a favorable first impression of Sam at the Bronco Nagurski awards banquet last year. That admiration grew since that meeting.
"For him to come out and let the world know that, that’s a guy with courage, integrity, bravery," Joyner said. "This guy came out – that takes heart. I can imagine what he will do for Rams organization with that brave heart. If he exposes his true self on a level like that, imagine what he’ll do for the Rams. I’m in the best situation to be a teammate of that guy."
Rhaney, Joyner and Sam all share the same dream: to play for the Rams and win a Super Bowl. "I'm ready to get St. Louis, build a family and play some football," said Rhaney, who considers Sam "as a brother."
That's the power of this Saturday: Sam is now on the inside of the NFL world, surrounded by NFL players and NFL coaches.
Everyone else is left out.
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