Sam We Am

We’ve seen this movie before, we know the lines, and we know what role we’re going to wish we had played.

Last week, All-American defensive tackle Michael Sam let the world know that whichever NFL team drafts him will have the first openly gay player in American major league sports.*

This week the sports world responded, and the discussion had a quality I didn’t expect: It was old. As ESPN said when they broke the story:

In 2014, “Gay Man to Enter Workforce” has the everyday-occurrence sound of a headline in The Onion.

The objections to Sam joining the NFL rehash the ones the public just rejected in the debate over ending Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell and letting gays serve openly in the military. If you look further back in history, those arguments are a rehash of what Truman heard when he let blacks into the military, or Branch Rickey heard when he brought Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers. (And they’re not that different from the arguments against letting women into businessmen’s clubs or blacks into white schools.)

By now, we’ve got this conversation’s number. It’s 42.

We’re told NFL teams will avoid drafting Sam so as not to screw up their “locker room culture”. In 2011 and in 1948, people worried about military “unit cohesion” and “morale”. It was code for: “We already have bigots, and they’ll be upset.”

That code doesn’t fool anybody anymore. If bigots cause a problem, it’s on them.

We’re told players will feel oogy, because, you know … showers. We’ve heard that before: about gays in the military, and about blacks, too, if you go back that far. It’s hard to reconstruct the argument now — I guess something about blacks was supposed to contaminate whites in some way — but in 1948 it was a big deal: Young white men from Jim Crow states couldn’t even use the same urinals as black men, so how could the Army expect them to shower together?

We’re told the NFL isn’t “ready” for gay players, as if baseball had been ready for Jackie Robinson or racing for Danica Patrick. Decades ago that seemed like a good point — maybe if we prepare for a few more years everything will go smoothly — but today it’s a fat pitch, a batting-practice lob. Ta-Nehisi Coates hit it over the fence like this:

The NFL has no moral right to be “ready” for a gay player, which is to say it has no right to discriminate against gay men at its leisure

In 2014 we know how this movie comes out, and we know the lines. That’s how people you never would have picked out as gay rights advocates are able to be so forceful and eloquent. Like Dale Hansen, the sports anchor at ABC’s Channel 8 in Dallas:

Since you know the lines, you get to pick your role. We can all be Atticus Finch this time, if we want to. Former NFL receiver Donte Stallworth had the strong-but-reasonable thing down pat when he wrote this for ThinkProgress on Friday:

Michael Sam will only be a distraction if his organization, head coach, and teammates let him become one because of their own biases and lack of leadership. … In my experience with Bill Belichick, the head coach of the New England Patriots, I feel he would handle this by not making it a big deal to begin with. Bill would walk in on day one, as he does every year, and tell his players that he expected them to treat everyone in this organization with respect and a professional attitude. Anything less in that organization is intolerable.

What about the other Super Bowl coach Stallworth played for?

John Harbaugh, the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, … [would] tell players to handle their problems in the locker room as a family would. If they had something to say, they should discuss it with each other, man to man, brother to brother, as a family. Harbaugh would tell us that if there were any issues among the team that we should hash it out in the locker room or a team meeting. If that failed, he’d tell us to come see him in his office or to go see general manager Ozzie Newsome, who has an open door policy and is always there for players to have an honest talk. Those guys would help players figure out their options or other ways to address whatever problems they had.

Those are separate ways to handle it, but they’re both effective because they both address the fundamental point: that this isn’t something that should distract players from doing the job they’re being paid to do. When you have strong leadership from your head coach and other players in the locker room, that’s an easy message to send. When you don’t, it means your problems are much bigger than a gay football player.

Usually, people give inordinate credit to the fig-leaf arguments of the status quo, and it takes a long time to see through them. But because we’ve been through this before and recently, this story has moved really fast. In just a few days, the question has flipped from “Will Michael Sam be a problem?” to “Is your team professional enough for Michael Sam?” After all, Sam’s college teammates at Missouri could handle having a gay teammate. They went 12-2 and finished the year ranked #5 in the country.** If your NFL team can’t deal with the situation as well as a bunch of amateur college kids, what’s the matter with you?

Overnight, the “manly” reaction flipped from being homophobic to having the maturity to respect your teammates, even if they’re different from you.

Before his announcement, the consensus judgment on Michael Sam was: He won’t be a superstar in the NFL, but he can play. He can help a team win games. At some point in the middle rounds of the draft, he’ll be the best player on the board.

Sam didn’t change any of that by telling us he’s gay.

So when he’s at the top of the board, the onus won’t be on him, it will be on the general managers of the teams. What are you saying, GMs, if you let him go by and draft somebody less talented? You’re saying that you think your players (who you signed) are immature and unprofessional, and that your coaches (who you hired) don’t have what it takes to handle them. You’re saying that you care more about making your job easy than about winning.

When you reach that point, NFL general manager, I’ve only got two words for you: Man up.

* Jason Collins would have had that distinction if any NBA team had signed him this year. But he was a journeyman veteran whose career might have over anyway.

** Missouri students deserve some credit too. When 14 members of the Westboro Baptist Church hate group came to campus to demonstrate against Sam, hundreds of students wearing “Stand with Sam” buttons and “We are all CoMo Sexuals” shirts formed a human wall. (Googling “como sexual” didn’t get me anything enlightening. I assume it means Missouri (MO) students together (co) to support people of all sexual preferences.)

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  • keeponlearnin  On February 17, 2014 at 8:58 am

    I’ve been a long time fan, and don’t mean to distract from the excellent, useful work you’ve been doing here. But, it’s important to consider all of the meanings of the words we choose, and your closing line on this one left me with a sour taste in my mouth. “I’ve only got two words for you: Man up.”

    “Man up” as a phrase, especially in an article about sexuality and sports, sends a potentially harmful message, even when the image of masculinity you appeal to is one of strength through tolerance. Having followed you here for a while, I am guessing that the choice of words there gave you pause in writing; here is the feedback. Maybe ‘Grow up’ or ‘Grow a spine’ fits better – I realize they lose the connotation of staffing the team, but the line isn’t good enough to be worth it.

    Sorry that my first comment is a criticism, I have been following gleefully for a year or so, and share my favorites. Keep up the excellent work!

  • mfennvt  On February 17, 2014 at 9:24 am

    I actually like the irony of using the phrase “Man up”–it seems to fit the situation–but I can see where it could turn folks off.

  • Anonymous  On February 17, 2014 at 9:50 am

    “CoMo” is because the University is in Columbia Missouri.

  • Joe Irvin Conover  On February 17, 2014 at 10:19 am

    Urban Dictionary offers many meanings of “man up,” but I think the broad meaning of “show maturity and do the right thing” applies here. And as M. Fenn points out, there is a certain irony in its use as Doug uses it.

  • weeklysift  On February 17, 2014 at 11:57 am

    I intended “man up” to refer to the previous “Overnight, the ‘manly’ reaction flipped from being homophobic to having the maturity to respect your teammates, even if they’re different from you.” But as last week’s lead quote emphasized, intention doesn’t always save something like that.

    So that I can do better in the future, I’d appreciate hearing from people who were offended. (If you just think other people might be offended, that’s less valuable.) If you don’t feel like commenting here, write to me at

  • Troy Dailey  On February 17, 2014 at 12:33 pm

    COMO or CoMo—COlumbia, MO. People from Columbia, mostly music-scene/bands/ etc…, started using COMO instead of spelling out “Columbia Missouri” about six years ago. That’s all it is, dude.


  • By Déjà vu | The Weekly Sift on February 17, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    […] week’s featured posts are “Sam We Am” and “What Should ‘Racism’ […]

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