Shut up and play? No, Michael Sam should do it the way Tim Tebow did

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

Jackie Robinson is the blueprint, or at least that's what so many seem to believe.

It certainly wouldn't be a bad example for Michael Sam to follow. Robinson broke MLB's color barrier by putting his head down and competing. He won over critics by winning games for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Just shut up and play. Jackie Robinson is an undeniable American hero for what he did. How he accomplished it was his choice. For him and his day, it was perfect.

That day, though, was 1947.

The suggestion Michael Sam – as he reported for duty in St. Louis on Tuesday as the first openly gay player in NFL history – needs to follow that lead, nearly seven decades later, is ridiculous.

Just shut up and play?

That suggests he must still be a prisoner to the bigots among us. It means he needs to avoid stepping on offended and uncomfortable toes while smashing down walls that no reasonable person believes should be standing. "I'm determined to be great," Sam said Tuesday at a news conference in St. Louis with the other Rams draft picks. "I want to train hard and try to make the team. All my focus is on trying to make the team."

Maybe Sam will be like Robinson. Maybe that's the path he'll follow. It's his choice, though.

It certainly isn't about the comfort level of those who believe their personal comfort is of any importance. Or that anything that jostles it is an affront that can't be tolerated.

It also isn't about any coworker who arrogantly wants to claim the stereotypical culture of a football locker room overrides the decency of a modern workplace and an enlightened society. Sorry, but if the integration of sexual orientation can work on the front lines of Afghanistan, no one wants to hear about whether the kickoff team can handle it.

The players will adjust. They always do. NFL locker rooms are already diverse and transient. One more player from one more background won't ruin anything. There will be plenty of support.

Thus far Sam hasn't acted like most expected he would, which is part of why he's caused so much sensation and condemnation. In kissing his significant other on television, he did nothing on Saturday that other draft picks haven't done for years. Yet every gay person in the world knows that doing what straight people can – especially in front of rolling cameras – can, in itself, be something unusual.

Michael Sam didn't care. He blasted into the NFL like a cannon ball, full force, front and center, unconcerned and unapologetic.

It was a thing of beauty, at least to those of us who find beauty in watching individuals blaze their own trails without concern for conventional wisdom or stagnant opinions.

"It's OK to be who you are," Sam said. "Whether you're gay, straight, black or white, it's OK to be comfortable in your own skin."

Anyone who thinks a gay man shouldn't be allowed in the NFL is just hateful and confused. And the people screaming that it's no one's business and shouldn't be reported are mostly, I suspect, just trying to justify a way to hide behind their intolerance.

Besides, they are ignorant to the undeniable potency in both the message and the messenger here. Generations of teens (and adults) have succumbed to substance abuse, depression and suicide, as they wondered why they weren't "normal." Some never came to terms with it, living lies as adults. It's a disaster with real human carnage. It's probably hit your own family whether you realize it or not.

Sam helps those kids, those people, just as NBA player Jason Collins coming out helped Sam. We're supposed to be against comforting the at-risk because something makes someone out there queasy?

It's the same reason it's impactful for young Christians to see successful people of faith. Tim Tebow blasted into the NFL like a cannon ball too, you know.

Yes, Tebow. Same game, different angle. Just as some on one side screamed for Tebow to keep his faith to himself, or mocked his kneeling and praying after touchdowns, now the other cries that Sam needs to just pipe down and play football.

Round and round it goes, prejudice clouding commonality, the profitable politics of division obscuring an appreciation for a couple of American originals, two men doing it their way.

If you can get past the nonsense, it's easy to be a fan of both of them.

Job one for Sam now is being more than a pioneer. He needs to be a St. Louis Ram. Making the team is critical.

How Sam goes about that isn't up to everyone else, though. He doesn't have to conform and be a robot.

And I doubt he will. Thus far he doesn't seem interested in altering his ways to appease others. That's what makes him so interesting.

If that means having a picture of his boyfriend in his locker, then so be it. If that means talking to teammates about his love life, then go ahead. If that means having a signature celebration after a big play that speaks to his fans, then bring it on. His choice.

Will there be ramifications? Perhaps. Tebow's career was impacted, at least somewhat, by his faith. It wasn't fair. He almost exclusively spoke of religion in the most positive, empowering and nonthreatening of ways. He was incredibly welcoming to all. You'll search long and hard to find anyone saying a single bad word about the guy. He's almost impossible to dislike.

Yet his roaring fans (and critics) and the media that fed the debate scared teams who might otherwise have given him the chance. He was the center of the circus, unwittingly or not.

That can, and perhaps will, happen to Sam too.

Tebow says he wouldn't change a thing about how he approached the NFL. In the end, he wasn't good enough. His release wasn't quick enough. He took on the league honestly, though. He was just himself. Take it or leave it.

That's what it looks like Sam is doing, too.

Just shut up and play? Nah. No one has the right to tell him that, just as no one has to right to expect him to care that kissing his boyfriend is a problem because they are unwilling or incapable of having an honest conversation about sexual orientation with their children … or themselves.

These aren't the days of Jackie Robinson.

That path worked in that day. Maybe Sam will follow it now. Maybe we've come far enough he doesn't have to. We'll see.

In the end, this is Michael Sam's story. He gets to write it. He gets to live it. He gets to decide how he wants to make the NFL. He doesn't have to shut up for any of us.

That's the whole damn point.

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