Gay Athletes: Why It Matters

O n Sunday, the St. Louis Rams drafted defensive end Michael Sam out of the University of Missouri with the 249th overall pick in the NFL Draft. Sam, who is openly gay, became the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL.

A year ago, NBA free agent Jason Collins made headlines while coming out while still “active”. Unfortunately – at the time – Collins was not on any sort of team roster.

Robbie Rogers, an American player in the English Football League, came out in February of last year after being released by Leeds United and subsequently announced his retirement. Rogers had retired to avoid scrutiny due to his sexuality, but changed his mind in May and joined Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy, becoming the first openly gay male to play in a major league team sport in the United States when he entered a game on May 26.

On February 23 of this year, Jason Collins signed a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets, becoming the first openly gay male to play in any of North America’s “Big Four” major league sports.

The question that gets thrown around quite a bit with stories like this is generally, “Why is this news?”

It’s news because it has not happened before. It’s news because invisible walls the previously existed have come down. It’s news because it is a cultural milestone not only for the sport and for sports in general, but for the entire country.

The St. Louis Rams knowingly and willingly selected a homosexual athlete to play football. You might try to fool yourself into thinking that it was a purely football move, but it wasn’t. Sam played college football at Missouri. His teammates knew he was gay and, when his fans learned of his sexual orientation, by and large they stood on his side and supported him. Many of those same fans will be supporting the St. Louis Rams on Sundays, should Sam make it through training camp. He is coming into the most friendly circumstance possible.

That question of why it is news reflects a larger problem. Yes, Sam is a football player, but if the belief that this sort of thing should be discussed just causes more of an issue. It is news because the inclusion and acceptance of athletes of different sexual orientations allows younger athletes of different sexual orientations know that it is okay to be who they are.

The “Why is this news?” crowd is perpetuating a different sort of agenda, even if they do not realizing it. Essentially, they are telling everyone that they should not talk about it. That they should hide it. That for some reason, a major cultural milestone should be hidden and put in a corner and not talked about.

That is the problem.

The fact that gay players have been forced to hide their sexual orientation for so long is what makes this news. The fact that there are people angry and who feel personally affronted by Michael Sam and by other gay athletes is what makes this news. It is not considered “the norm” and that’s why it is news. When it is “the norm”, when it’s not a major event that there is an openly gay football player or baseball player or hockey player, then it will cease to be news.

To date, there has not been an active openly gay Major League Baseball player or NHL player. Until Michael Sam suits up for the first time for Jeff Fisher’s Rams, that bridge hasn’t been crossed in the NFL either.
It shouldn’t be news, but it is. The fact that a person can be effectively blackballed from playing in a professional sport based on his sexuality is what makes this news.

Acting like there isn’t a problem to solve is simply ignorant. The fact that an organization such as the You Can Play Project exists is simply evidence of the larger issue. There is still a belief in a large number of circles that gay athletes have no business playing team sports with or against straight athletes.

You Can Play’s Mission Statement is as follows:

You Can Play is dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.

You Can Play works to guarantee that athletes are given a fair opportunity to compete, judged by other athletes and fans alike, only by what they contribute to the sport or their team’s success.

You Can Play seeks to challenge the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas by focusing only on an athlete’s skills, work ethic and competitive spirit.

Ironically, the fear that most people have is that even the players who support gay athletes will be shut up by the larger voices who do not. The fact of the matter is that a poll conducted last year among players learned that 80 percent of professional hockey players would accept a gay teammate. The other 20 percent will likely be drowned out by the 80 percent in favor.

“We don’t need to know who a player dates.” No, you don’t, because it doesn’t have any effect on your life in any manner whatsoever. For 99.9 percent of the general public, Michael Sam’s openness about his sexuality has exactly zero impact on your life. None. It makes no sense to adamantly oppose a person’s right to be a person simply because that person is different from you.

In fact, there’s a word for that sort of thing and it’s called “discrimination”.

There are players who have raped people, there are players who have killed people, there are players who have beaten women and there are players who have done all sorts of unspeakable things. Michael Vick ran a dogfighting ring in which part of the operation was feeding smaller dogs to his pit bulls to make them more vicious and more willing to kill other dogs…and yet people still buy his jerseys.

And yet, somehow, a person’s sexual orientation is the trigger point.

In 1949, the United States government declared, “Homosexual personnel, irrespective of sex, should not be permitted to serve in any branch of the Armed Forces in any capacity, and prompt separation of known homosexuals from the Armed Forces is mandatory.” That rule was “relaxed” in 1994 with the institution of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy for the armed forces. Under DADT, homosexuals were allowed to participate in military service as long as they stayed in the closet. Military personnel were not allowed to ask other military personnel about their sexual orientation, but – again – it forced gay service members to stay in the closet. In addition, even if a service member was in the closet and discreet about their sexuality, if they happened to live with a person of the same gender or give any public appearance of homosexuality at any time, they could be discharged from the military.

Effectively, the policy was the same as saying, “It’s okay to cook meth as long as no one finds out you do it.” Every crime or rule-breaking instance is technically “okay” until you get caught. On the surface, they were trying to give the appearance of acceptance, while the ban was the same as before.

In 2010, Congress repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and put a process into place that would allow for gays, lesbians and bisexuals to serve openly in the military. However, it’s not that simple. However, in that vote just four years ago, 175 Representatives and 33 Senators, including both Senators from Tennessee, voted against the repeal.

Why is this news? Why are events like this historical?

Because there are still people in major decision-making positions who are trying to remove rights from anyone who is not a heterosexual. There are still people in the government who are not only trying to deny rights to homosexuals, but trying to criminalize them.

In 2011, a bill in the Tennessee legislature nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill was approved by a Senate committee before ultimately being struck down. Under the bill, through eighth grade in Tennessee, teachers were not allowed to teach about any sexuality other than heterosexuality, regardless of the orientation of the teacher, students or the family of the students. Effectively, the bill seemed to believe that if students were not taught that gay people can exist, they will not exist.

Whether people like it or not, with the advent of Internet, we have become a society that relies quite a bit on open discourse. Telling people to shut up about gay athletes is not going to stop the discourse.

No one is asking anyone to be proud of Michael Sam or to consider him a hero or honestly, to even care. Like any other football player, he is just a football player. What is being asked is that he not be villainized for his sexuality.

No one is expecting anyone to run down the street waving rainbow flags and marching in parades. All that is needed is acceptance and tolerance.

And no, being intolerant of intolerance is not intolerance – it’s called decency.

To be honest, I’m kind of scared to actually publish this post. I know that there will people who will not only disagree with me, but will do so in the most bilous and vehement nature they possibly can.

In fact, as a straight male, there’s a chance that I’ve somehow come in on the wrong side of my own beliefs in something that I’ve written because I am writing in defense of something which essentially has no effect over me either way.

What I do know, however, is this: at its core, this is a civil rights issue. The belief that an entire group of people should be excluded or hidden for being different is discrimination, no matter how you try to stretch it.

The news is not that Collins or Rogers or Sam are the first gay athletes to play their sports. In fact, it is known that there were homosexual athletes who preceded them in football, baseball and basketball – several athletes have opened up on their sexuality when their playing careers were completed and when they were ready to leave the public eye.

Human rights should never, ever be a political issue.

It’s news because it’s proof that we can adapt, change and become more accepting as a society, regardless of the other evidence at the core. When Jackie Robinson became the first black Major League Baseball player in 60 years, Jim Crow laws were still in effect all over the place. However, the fact that there were people who saw the wrongness of barring an entire group of people simply for being different changed helped to tear down those walls.

No one expects the door to come swinging open. It was a barrier, not a locked door. Michael Sam likely won’t start a flood of players publicly acknowledging their sexuality unless you consider two or three players a “flood”.

It is a deviation from the norm. That alone makes this news.

It’s evidence that we might actually begin treating other humans as humans…and that’s why it is important.

Photo Credit: Marcus Qwertyus (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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A native of Franklin, Tennessee, Patten Fuqua is the managing editor of PuckScene.com. He earned a Bachelor’s of Science from Belmont University in Journalism and Broadcasting.
  • Robert

    I’ll agree that it’s news, but it shouldn’t be headline news blasted all over the place. This is the kind of thing that has caused homosexuals to become marginalized by their own actions. By making too big a deal out of this, news organizations are basically saying “Look at this 2nd class citizen who has a chance to make it”. Some of us would rather believe that gays are not second class citizens, but equals. Though this isn’t necessarily the case in all aspects of our country, it is coming closer to a realization. What is being done is that Michael Sam is defining himself by his sexuality. He’s no longer a football player from Missouri who was Co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Now he’s “Michael Sam: Gay Guy Who Happens to Play Football”. This only serves to hurt the homosexual community in the places of society that they think hate them the most.
    Most people really don’t care much about this story. By making a bigger deal out of it than is necessary, you’re going to make enemies (how vocal they’ll be is questionable) where there were originally only apathetic people. Basically, it boils down to this: By treating this as TOO big of a deal, you’re throwing it into the face of people who don’t care, or who don’t want to care. This causes a bit of a backlash. The guy’s getting all this attention, but all he is is a 7th round draft pick. It’s a lot of the same type of backlash Lebron got before he won a title. If we treated him as just another human being no different than the rest of us, he could be a champion of gay rights and bring that to people who don’t currently care about sexuality at all.
    A better way to go about this would be for Sam not to hide his sexuality, but to not let it define who he is. It would be better for the gay movement to change people’s minds if he was seen as a football player first, and a gay man second. People who don’t want to have their minds changed would have a much more difficult time rationalizing the dissonance of disliking gays, but liking Michael Sam. With the route that’s been chosen, Michael Sam and the media have made that process very easy for them.

  • Scott O

    An excellent summary of the compelling reasons to care about Mike Sam, Patton. From my perspective it isn’t so much about him or his sexuality as it is about us and the discomfort some feel about his sexuality. The idea that professional athletes who spend their careers looking across the line at 300-pound-plus opponents who want to do them grievous harm should become all flustered at the prospect of a gay guy in their midst is preposterous. Look at it from Mike Sam’s perspective: he is who he is and now he does not need to feel ashamed of it. We all should grant him that liberty. He is no longer bound by his own guilt or shame. We should all rejoice that he has, with Jeff Fisher’s help, taken this step to freedom.