Criticism of Michael Sam

I don’t follow football all that much anymore. I used to be a huge fan. From the mid 1990s, when my beloved hometown Chiefs were smashing through the NFL every year with punishing defense and explosive special teams, (then bowing out in early January against teams with actual offenses) to the mid aughts, as the explosive Dick Vermeil-led Chiefs made every game an exciting (and exasperating) 42-38 shootout, I followed the NFL intensely. I could recite stats, records, and break down strategy… it was very much my thing. I followed the college game less, but well enough to know how Mizzou was doing, and who were the top NFL prospects. Then Herm Edwards took over the Chiefs, and they stopped winning or even being fun to watch, and I kind of lost interest. Now, I occasionally still catch a game, and I know the big names. But even beyond a lack of winning in KC, other things interfered. Women, work, writing, better sports (boxing!), and life in general, just got in the way.

Now, in 2014, I’m a casual fan at best. I still keep up somewhat with the locals guys, meaning the Chiefs and Mizzou, but only as far as the results, and sometimes parts of a game if it happens to be on in a bar. This past season (2013), turned out to be pretty good for both the Chiefs and the Tigers. The Tigers in particular went 12-2, finishing the year ranked 5th in the nation, and winning the Cotton Bowl. Defensive End Michael Sam was an integral part of that team, tying the team’s single-season record with 11.5 sacks and presenting a major challenge to opposing offenses.

Before the season started, Michael announced to his teammates that he was gay. Apparently, the team took it quite well, and the chemistry of the team on and off the field seemed unaffected by this news. After the season ended, and Michael Sam was being considered as a possible NFL draft pick, he announced in an interview on ESPN what he already told his teammates months before. As he was widely considered a near lock to be drafted, he was hailed as the first openly gay player to be considered for the NFL. There have been gay players before, and are almost certainly at least a handful playing today. However, Sam broke a major barrier by announcing his intent to join a major professional sports league as an out gay man.

Before the draft, Sam disappointed somewhat in the NFL combine. Small for his position (defensive end), he’s a bit slow for the more size-appropriate linebacker role. His stock fell some, though many thought he could grow into his role. Sam is, after all, only 24, and may not yet be in his physical prime. When the draft finally occurred, there was rampant speculation that many teams decided to pass on him, not because of his relatively weak (but not terrible) combine, but because of his prior announcement. Eventually, the Saint Louis Rams picked him in the 7th and final round, with the 249th selection of the 2014 draft.

Many commentators lauded Sam, as well as the St. Louis Rams, for choosing him in the draft. The first hurdle had been cleared, though he has yet to be signed by the team, and is still not yet an active NFL player. Still, this is an impressive step. There have certainly been gay athletes competing openly in sport before. An NBA player recently announced that he was gay, and a couple others have announced it after their careers were over. But the NFL is different. Right now, in America in 2014, it is the biggest, richest, and most pervasive sport in the land. Of the “Big Four” of American major sports leagues, it is by far the most popular and profitable. It’s also by far the most macho and aggressive. It fosters a culture and an attitude within the league itself that tends not to be “gay-friendly.” Plenty of NFL fans (by no means all of them, of course) tend to absorb the kind of attitudes that make it difficult for gay players to reveal who they are.

Not all of the fans are ignorant morons, but much of the online commentary came from that contingent after Sam was drafted. The usual angry, outraged voices made themselves heard on Twitter and Facebook, in blogs, and even on actual news sites. Many people went with the usual, “being gay is a sin” thing. Much of the outrage was religiously-tinged, which is often how much of the anti-gay rhetoric in this country goes. Some people just went with “gay is icky (at least in implication),” which might be how many of the religious bigots truly feel, but have to hide behind Jesus to make themselves feel better. While being gay is more socially acceptable in mainstream America than it used to be, it’s clear that as a people, we have a long way to go still.

What I was curious about was how more thoughtful voices would try to justify their squeamishness about gay people. Would any blogs or op-eds appear that attempt to justify their “gay is icky” mentality in a less-than-childish manner?

A few days ago, a Facebook friend posted a link to a blog that was, on the surface, a reasonable and thoughtful dissent against … well, actually, I’m not really sure what. The gay agenda? The liberal agenda? Political correctness? Other conservative talking points? Something like that, yeah. Considering the thousands of comments and shares his blog post has received, it’s clear that way too many people agree with him. For those who are curious, and want to rebut some of the more ridiculous statements made in it, here is the post:

Matt is clearly offended by the amount of attention Michael Sam has received, and by the number of people who find him to be something of a pioneer for equality in sport and culture in general. Matt wrote out a list of reasons why he resents the attention the Michael Sam draft has received.

Matt starts out in his first point stating that one can’t feel their sex life is nobody else’s business, then announce it to the world. He writes:

Your sexuality is none of my business, right? Yes. Fine. Sounds good to me.

But this “none of my business” shtick is a two way street, friend. What exactly does it mean for a thing to be “none of my business” when you’re holding a press conference and proclaiming it to the entire world?

Gay people (and all people, really) rightfully proclaim, “Sexuality is none of your business” when responding to the legislators, moralizers, the commentators who rail against private acts in private bedrooms. It makes sense to argue from that point, and Matt clearly doesn’t object to that argument. But what he does object to, is someone like Sam making it public. Well, it’s actually not that hard, Matt. Sexual orientation is more than just a “lifestyle choice.” Being gay, straight, or somewhere in between is tied in with one’s genetic makeup. It’s part of a person’s identity as much as race is. And for decades, people who didn’t fit in with the “straight” identification have been mocked, degraded, marginalized, and discriminated against. In America in 2014, it is much easier to be gay and not hide than at any time in the past. However, gay people still do not enjoy the same rights as Americans that straight people do. Simple as that. There are laws on the books that specifically exclude gay people from the same things that straight people take for granted. That is discrimination, plain and simple. And this is something that people like Matt Walsh don’t seem to get. He states a little later:

My first thought: OK, was anybody asking?

The man pursued national media outlets and, without being provoked or solicited, ‘announced’ his sexual desires to the nation. Why? Because it’s none of our business? Because we should feel nothing and have no opinion on the matter?

No, of course not. We are supposed to feel something, and we are supposed to have an opinion, but they must be the right feelings and the right opinions.

That’s the point here.

If you simply wish to be accepted, perhaps you’d discuss these private details with those closest to you. If you wish to be celebrated, you throw yourself a party and call the press.

Michael Sam chose the latter.

Sorry Matt, that’s not the point here. This is not a man who just decided to “announce his sexual desires” to the nation. This is a gay man who was likely to become even more of a public figure, possibly for several years, deciding that he didn’t want to spend that public life hiding who he really was. There have been gay men (and women) in sport before, as I mentioned earlier. Most of them have been in individual sports like tennis, boxing, and figure skating. Many have also been on teams, where they felt increased pressure to stay silent, to hide, to just keep their heads down and perform. And, unlike Jackie Robinson in 1947, they are able to stay quiet, if they choose. However, they shouldn’t have to, just because it makes bigots more comfortable.

Matt, you tell people they can’t have it both ways. Well, actually they can. And should. Private bedroom habits have been legislated and should not be. That’s not a point of contention between you and me. However, being gay is much more than mere sexual habits. That’s the big thing you’re missing. A gay man is not the exact same as someone who, say, likes to be tied up during sex, or someone who likes to use toys. Those are habits and fetishes. Which is fine, but people generally don’t “come out” as kinky in the bedroom. That’s how you’re treating gay people. Michael Sam would likely tell you that his sexual orientation is more than just who he has sex with. Sexual orientation has led to discriminatory laws and business practices. It has led to gay people not being allowed all of the same rights and privileges as straight people. While being gay is not outlawed in the NFL, it has definitely not been encouraged. Sexual orientation is as much as many people’s identity as race, and oppressing either is wrong.

More from Matt:

Ellen Page, Jason Collins, Michael Sam — all of these people were greeted by applause and adulation from all across the country. They were hoisted up and canonized by pop culture, most of mainstream society, most major corporations, most of the media, most of academia, most of our politicians, and the President of the United States of America. Their ‘announcements’ instantly ensured them a protected status and, particularly in the case of Collins and Sam, a fame and cultural relevance they would not have otherwise achieved. The criticisms will come from the fringes, and those critics will be drowned out and beaten back by a shouting, venomous mob of dogmatic progressive zealots.

Venomous mob? You mean people who disagree with your justification for de facto discrimination? You can say what you want, and people can disagree. That’s not “drowning you out,” that’s having a different point of view. A common theme of your argument seems to be that other opinions are okay – as long as they are quiet. Sigh… Well, here’s the thing about free speech… it is allowed and encouraged… and so are the voices who may not agree. Discussion and debate is just that. Will someone be criticised for making criticism? Sure. That’s part of it. It’s nothing to whine about. Michael Sam has already taken plenty of vicious and yes, venomous criticism for his decision to come out. Far more venomous than the “dogmatic progressive zealots” you speak of.

As for other gay people being greeted with adulation – well, not entirely. It depends on what you’re paying attention to. Page, Collins, and Brittney Griner all received the same sort of frothing reactions around the internet as Sam. Much was from the fringes, much was not. And saying the fringes were drowned out is pretty stupid. If we can find them, read them, react to them, then they haven’t been drowned out.

Going back to that venom you mentioned, here’s something silly you wrote:

Liberal blogs made much ado about the few random Tweets they could find from people expressing disgust about Sam kissing his boyfriend. What these instigators won’t mention is that, in order to get to the ‘bad people,’ they had to wade through thousands of Twitter users falling over themselves in a competition to see who could use the most glowing adjectives to describe watching two men smooch on Sportscenter.

Hoo boy. This is just factually incorrect. There was nothing random about these Tweets you speak of. Just because you didn’t look for them doesn’t mean it took effort to find. There was no trouble or effort in finding thousands of “dogmatic conservative (or religious or both) zealots” railing against how awful it was that Michael Sam kissed his significant other when he was told he was drafted. What he did was no different than what pretty much EVERY draft pick with a wife or girlfriend does. Yes, it is pretty damn sad that thousands of people rant and rave about seeing two men kiss. A simple, quick, loving act, performed by every straight couple in existence is open for attack because… it’s icky? It’s relatively rare? Many of the hordes of angry criticisms came from celebrities (Donald Trump, Bill O’Reilly, etc) and other NFL players and draftees. This wasn’t just the ranting of a few sporadic pissed-off losers. Michael Sam’s coming out, then draft, then reaction to said draft, geniunely enraged a lot of people. And many of them said some pretty sick stuff. So yeah, I think it’s okay if I (and others) rebut them or point them out.

Plenty of people have already said it, but it’s true that many of the Michael Sam cheerleaders are hypocrites of the lowest sort. Say what you will about Tim Tebow; one thing you can’t deny is that the dude was told loudly, harshly, and frequently, to ‘keep his religion to himself.’ Football isn’t a place for religion, they said.

Tebow was criticized, somewhat, for opening his mouth about his chosen religion. And he spoke loudly and frequently. People responded. As they are allowed. Actually, most of the criticism of Tebow came from the fact that he wasn’t a very good quarterback. He was basically an over-hyped, loud-mouthed Eric Crouch. Sports fans get harsh about that. Go figure. Some people disagreed with his religiosity. Some people may have been jerks about it. Probably no more than are being jerks to Michael Sam. But, again, you bring up a huge false equivalence. Religion is a choice. There are thousands of religions, and all of them are man-made. Sexual orientation is genetic, and somewhat tricky. It is not a choice. Why should Michael Sam keep quiet about being the person that he is, and was born, just because Tim Tebow thinks that there is a magic sky daddy who keeps him safe and helps him throw touchdowns? These are not the same.

Why is it that when thousands of nuts on Twitter and Facebook, (and several “legitimate” media pundits) rant and rave against Michael Sam’s “sin,” it’s just a few fringe nuts and if someone speaks up about their commentary, it’s oppressive? Accusing others of hypocrisy doesn’t work when you do it yourself.

Moving on, we see:

Media hacks have already begun conjuring up a controversy over the fact that it ‘took so long’ for Sam to be drafted.

They’re furrowing their brows and inquiring as to why Saint Michael Sam didn’t get taken off the board until the very end of the last round. Could it be homophobia, they wonder?

Perhaps, or could it be that Sam is a small, slow, middling prospect who might not be good enough to even make the squad? Could it be that he’s exactly the type of player who often goes undrafted every single year? Could it be that he’s a below average talent?

Actually, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and other sports media all had mentioned and covered the fact that he had a fairly poor combine. He also had a pretty good public workout a few weeks later that showed significant improvement over his combine, which is something you didn’t mention. He probably isn’t a below-average talent, but he may not be an above-average one, either. And that criticism actually is fair, because it sticks to sports, which happens to be his chosen field. On the other hand, plenty of good players underperform early before turning things around later on. There’s no point in dismissing him early because of a poor combine. I’m sure that played a role in his low draft, but his coming out didn’t help, either.

Finally, referring to an ad spot featuring Sam:

In the Visa spot, Sam insists that he only wants to be judged for what he does on the field.

A fine sentiment, but one that would have been easily accomplished had he not gone to great lengths to be applauded for what he does in the bedroom.

Again, this reduces gay people to their sex lives only. This reduces being gay to a shallow sexual fetish and nothing more. Again, again, again, being gay is not a choice. Michael Sam grew up gay and black in Texas. He’s the 7th of 8 kids. Half his family has gone through ridiculous personal tragedy. Michael Sam already has the cards stacked against him in life. So yes, when he got the chance to gain some measure of celebrity, he decided that hiding an important part of himself was no longer necessary. It’s not some “liberal doctrine” that gay people are, well, people, and deserving of the same rights and privileges as everyone else. It’s simply decency and truth. Michael Sam isn’t pushing his sex life on anyone. He’s simply an already public figure stating who he is as a person, and that is brave.

There is a decent criticism to be made about Michael Sam, but it’s more about the people who stand to profit from him. Jason Whitlock, a generally intelligent and thoughtful individual (who sometimes sticks his foot in his mouth) made a solid argument related to Michael $am vs Michael Sam here:

For more information on the backlash against Sam, check out these links:

And commentary about Tim Tebow, compared to Michael Sam:

I don’t want to pick on Matt Walsh, who is clearly not stupid, and not blatantly homophobic. But in his efforts to present a “rational” argument against public support for Michael Sam, he misses some key points, and just makes some things up. Perception is everything, and to him, people who disagree with him are oppressive, loud, and vitriolic, and people who agree with him and happen to be dirtbags are rare and isolated. This is not a perception that I deem to be accurate, I think it’s important to call him out on this. But that probably just makes me a strident, screeching voice, drowning out his impeccable reason.

In the meantime, I may actually stoop to supporting the Rams, if only because I think a successful Michael Sam can only be a good thing for gay people, straight people, and fans of human rights everywhere.

About hbreck

Writer, debater, contrarian, storyteller, occasional troublemaker. I'm mostly just making things up as I go.
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