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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

It's Time to Walk the Walk, NFL

When one looks at two photographs of the sky with one taken at sunset and the other at sunrise, it’s hard to distinguish them with the same combination of oranges, reds and blues swirled together amidst wispy clouds.  But the difference in time—sunset or sunrise—makes it significant.
Michael Sam
The same can be said when comparing the latest coming out announcements from the world of pro male sports.  Last spring, NBA player Jason Collins announced he was gay, and in doing so became the first active male professional athlete in a major North American team sport to come out. 
At no point in his career was his average point total over 6.4 per game. Since the 2006-2007 season, he never played more than in half the game. And now at age 35 and having been a marginal producer, it is questionable if another NBA team would be willing to take a chance on this free agent.  He is still waiting for that phone call.

Some simply conclude that his age and his lack of production are the reasons no team has taken the chance.  Others surmise that his sexual orientation would be too much for a team’s front office, coaching staff, players and fans to cope with.  He is still “active” in that he had not retired, but Collins is unemployed in the NBA nonetheless. 
Being in the “sunset” of his career probably had a lot to do with the reluctance by the NBA’s teams to deal with the media frenzy that would surely follow.  Worse, they would fear a backlash, and for what?

When collegiate football star Michael Sam announced he was gay to the New York Times and ESPN, he did so in the “sunrise” of his career.  A star defensive lineman for the University of Missouri with a penchant for sacking opposing quarterbacks, he is an All-American and named the top defensive player in the Southeastern Conference, considered the nation’s best league. Teammates named him the Mizzou’s most valuable player.  And his teammates not only knew he is gay, they supported him wholeheartedly. 
While this was kept under the lid for the most part, there were still rumors floating around.  Sam wanted to come out on his terms.  “I came to tell the world I'm an openly proud gay man,” he said in the ESPN interview.  His announcement was met with encouragement and praise from the President of the United States and the First lady among many others.

Given his shining record, Sam would have been a near certain draft pick in the NFL’s draft in May.  Experts projected him to be a third to perhaps seventh round selection.   Now there are questions.

Some anonymous coaches, players or team officials have stated that the NFL is not quite ready for a gay player.  Others said his stock had dropped even with the talent the 6-2, 260 pounder possesses. 
Any breakthrough in professional sports of this magnitude immediately conjures up the history of Jackie Robinson’s breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947 when Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey took a chance and signed the talented, multi-sports athlete.

Robinson was told to turn the other cheek amidst taunts, attempts to injure and death threats from fans, opponents and even his own teammates.  He endured and demonstrated his superior inner strength and athletic prowess during a Hall of Fame career.  Robinson’s courage cannot be overstated.
Though we are in the 21st century, society still has its bigots and homophobes.  If a team drafts him, the locker room will take care of itself.  Though there will be some exceptions for sure, the players are warriors and want to win and will accept Michael Sam sooner or later.  Management, on the other hand, is concerned about “distractions” that could include negative fan reactions. 

Here are examples of such vitriol already posted on a FOX Sports comment thread:
From Toyhunt: “Now if he fails to get a job, he can play the gay card. See how this scam works gang. Just like the d party, run a half black man, object to anything, play the race card. This is getting old fast. The right seems to fail to use the same tactic.”

From BigMark1954: “I am so fed up with the LGBT community cramming their propaganda down our throats. The media is sensationalizing Sam's perversion, or should I say affliction. Will it ever end! And what about the players that have to be in the locker room with Sam, how comfortable will they be.....knowing full well they are ‘eyecandy’ for his perversion. Let alone his team mates that have a moral code, and some human decency?”
Sam will see and hear this and worse, but his character, strengthened by what he has suffered already with his family in his young life, will keep him focused on winning and will eventually earn the respect of his teammates, coaches and fans. 

The NFL had instituted a non-discrimination policy that states in part: “Coaches, General Managers and others responsible for interviewing and hiring draft-eligible players and free agents must not seek information concerning or make personnel decisions based on a player's sexual orientation. This includes asking questions during an interview that suggest that the player’s sexual orientation will be a factor in the decision to draft or sign him.”
Baltimore Ravens President Dick Cass offered support.  “I don’t think his being gay would be an issue at all for the Ravens,” Cass told baltimoreravens.com. “We’re all about winning. If he’s a good football player who can help us win games, he will be welcomed here. I was impressed by the report he received from his teammates and coaches at the University of Missouri. He obviously knows how to be a good teammate.”

It will certainly be a most interesting draft in a few months.  Michael Sam could be another Jackie Robinson-type trail blazer.  What we need, though, is another Branch Rickey.

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