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Commentary: Michael Sam a more worthy Jackie Robinson of gay athletes...
Published on May 16, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Anthony L Hall

Michael Sam made history (of sorts) on Saturday when the St. Louis Rams selected him in the seventh and final round of this year’s NFL Draft. But it’s important to keep his selection in context.

Here, in this regard, is what I wrote earlier this year, when everyone hailing Sam today was hailing Jason Collins, after the Brooklyn Nets signed him as the first openly gay athlete in professional sports:

Frankly, the Brooklyn Nets seem only interested in claiming historic symmetry with the Brooklyn Dodgers – who made history in April 1947 by signing Jackie Robinson as the first black player in professional sports. The glaring difference, however, is that the Dodgers did not sign Robinson as a token black, hoping to profit from whatever media coverage and public goodwill it generates. They signed Robinson to help them win baseball games, which he did … and then some.

By contrast, Collins got cut from the NBA last year because he was washed up, not because he “came out.” Accordingly, nobody should expect him to do anything but serve as the token gay in the NBA.

Moreover, let’s not overlook that, by participating in this stunt, Collins denied football player Michael Sam this acclaim of becoming the first openly gay player in professional sports.

(“Gay Civil Rights: from Media Stunt in New York to Witch-Hunt in Uganda,” The iPINIONS Journal, February 26, 2014)

That said, it’s hardly surprising that the White House led the chorus of those congratulating Sam and the Rams. Here, in part, is the statement it issued immediately after his selection:

The President congratulates Michael Sam, the Rams and the NFL for taking an important step forward today in our Nation’s journey. From the playing field to the corporate boardroom, LGBT Americans prove everyday that you should be judged by what you do and not who you are.

(ABC News, May 10, 2014)

It’s also an indication of how popular Sam’s selection was that it was the most tweeted-about of the entire Draft, tallying over 100,000 tweets within 30 minutes of his selection.

Yet I feel constrained to note that he was the 249th of 256 players drafted. Moreover, it took the NFL team from Missouri, the state where he played his college football, to draft him, which it did only after drafting nine other players in the earlier rounds.

Which is why it’s arguable that he would not have been drafted if the Rams had not selected him.

But let me hasten to clarify that there was nothing homophobic about other teams passing on Sam. After all, despite an impressive college career – highlighted by leading the Southeast Conference in sacks with 11.5 last season and being named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, he simply failed to impress, by all objective criteria, at the NFL Combine in February:

Several bigger defensive ends have run faster, and some defensive tackles are faster, too.

And that comes on the heels of yesterday’s performance in the bench press in which Sam managed just 17 repetitions of 225 pounds. That was the second-worst showing among defensive linemen, and plenty of non-linemen (including seven wide receivers) did better than that as well: if you’re not strong and you’re not fast, that’s not a good combination.

(NBC News, February 24, 2014)

Ironically, it’s probably fair to assert that the Rams drafted him only because he’s gay. Indeed, considering what a civil rights cause célèbre drafting him had become, they can be forgiven for doing so as much to save face for their home state of Missouri as for his playing ability.

Anthony L. Hall is a Bahamian who descends from the Turks and Caicos Islands. He is an international lawyer and political consultant - headquartered in Washington DC - who also publishes a current events weblog, The iPINIONS Journal, at
Having done so, though, the Rams seem determined to milk every ounce of public goodwill out of Sam off the field even if they cannot get much good play out of him on the field. Nothing demonstrates this quite like the way the team is already marketing/exploiting his selection more than that of all of its other, earlier selections combined.

What’s more, team executives know that just having Sam on the sidelines will draw tens of thousands to the stadium (for the first time) and entice many more to buy Sam-related team merchandise because of its historic significance. Just imagine the commercial and sentimental value of any Jackie Robinson memorabilia from his rookie year of 1947.

All the same, I hope Sam makes the final cut this fall – not as the NFL’s token gay, but as a bona fide player. Because there will be no gay pride in the Rams keeping him on the roster if he turns out be as big a bust during pre-season tryouts as he was during the combine.

Incidentally, I am convinced that his homosexuality will pose no greater problem on the field in the NFL than it did in the NCAA, which of course was none at all! I am also convinced that he will face the kind of hazing the Miami Dolphins’ Richie Incognito famously meted out against teammate Jonathan Martin. But I expect Sam will be more of a “man” about it than Martin was, which he might have to show by punching a closet homophobe in the mouth.

If he makes it, though, Sam should go down in history as the Jackie Robinson of gay athletes; Collins should be footnoted only for the media stunt he pulled.

Capturing the moment … for History

It’s hardly surprising that ESPN producers had TV cameras rolling to capture Sam’s reaction when he got drafted. And they must’ve felt like tabloid editors capturing the first shot of George Clooney kissing his new fiancée when they captured Sam reacting – not only by breaking down in tears, but also by kissing and embracing his boyfriend.

Unfortunately, in keeping with standard social-media practice, no-name trolls tried their damnedest to gain a name for themselves by publishing the most homophobic tweets about Sam’s kiss and embrace, the video of which went viral immediately.

But, instead of condemning the nincompoops who seek infamy by publishing plainly offensive tweets, I urge you to condemn the mainstream-media outlets that continually give them the notoriety they seek; that is, by featuring their tweets and mugs as news – complete with feigned editorial indignation.

Related commentaries:
Gay civil rights

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