Michael Sam, Sportsball and Me

I’ll be honest.  I am not a fan of football.  So much so that to the amusement and often the irritation of my friends, I regularly refer to it as “sportsball” to proclaim proudly my ignorance and disinterest.

Football and I never had a chance.  In sixth grade P.E. class the coaches corralled us all on the field to teach us (well, those of us that didn’t already know) the rules to football through flag football games.  We were a sea of adolescents in matching red short shorts, but not the cute kind obviously.  Our matching slate gray T-shirts, appropriately colored to match my mood at the start of the period every day, each had a rectangle mid-chest where there was only enough room to write one’s last name in magic marker.  A testament to penmanship and resignation, we knew that’s the only name that would be shouted for the duration of the interminable period.  (What’s with that sports last name thing, by the way?  As if one is less likely to hustle when called by first name? But I digress.)

Even then, I was one of ten or so boys who chose not to learn to play football and instead went off to play kickball for those weeks.  I was taller than average, but the kind of thin that is politely called slight, but is more appropriately labeled “oh my god you’re so skinny a stiff breeze would blow you away” and the idea of throwing or catching a ball while someone ran full-tilt at me seemed a terrifying and unnecessary way to end up with broken glasses or a broken face, so I skipped out.

Many of the other boys went on to join the seventh and then the eighth grade football teams.  I, obviously, did not.  Those boys grew in popularity while I stayed comfortable in my own little world of music, theatre and the mathletes (yes, math + athletes = mathletes…because it’s just an awesome way to say “please, pick on me, I’m clearly asking for it.”)

In high school, the importance of football exploded exponentially as the boys on the freshman team became a special kind of super star, befriending upperclassmen and cheerleaders by the armload on their way to the junior varsity team and then the brass ring of the letter jacket-wearing varsity team along with an all-access pass to the inner circle of the social hierarchy. Meanwhile, I played the French Horn in the marching band.  Thus, I was on the absolute last rung of the ladder of those required to be in attendance at the Friday night football games, jockeying for position with the students who worked the concession stand as a part-time job.  At least they could offer free popcorn to buy their way up the ladder if they so chose.  I’ll admit that even attending every single school football game, I never actually learned the rules of playing.

My adolescent experience with football was set against the backdrop of suburban Houston, Texas.  The massive high school I attended had theatre, band and choir programs that were some of the best in the state.  Our drill team was number one in the nation and we excelled in many academic areas as well.  However, it was Texas, and absolutely everything rose and fell on the wins and losses of the football team, and there was nothing given more importance than the celebrity-culture of that team.  The entire world revolved around it and exploded with operatic frenzy for every. single. game.

From the time I was twelve years old, the worst player on the last string of the football team was more popular than the best individual at any of a myriad of other activities – well, essentially all other activities.  Even if they lost every single game they played.  Successful male athletes were considered to exemplify a special brand of masculinity.  The football players were on an Olympian plan above all others.  They ran in packs, bonded by the field of play in a way the rest of us could not relate to and thus were excluded from.

For many like me, those football players were a special brand of terrifying during the fragile years of being an awkward teenager.  Admittedly, some of that was from my own fear, my own self-doubt and the strange warping effect that puberty can have on one’s self-perception.  Some of it was the way some of them acted.  As if they were better than everyone else.  As if it gave them the right to intimidate anyone not in their club.  As if simply being in their class, their way or at times even just in their eyeline made it okay for them to hurl abusive, emasculating comments at those they deemed inferior. “You throw like a girl.” “Pussy.” “Go cry to your mom about it.” “Fag.”

This is not in anyway to characterize all athletes, all student-athletes or all adolescent boys as a bullies or anti-gay.  I have no doubt that many of them were then and others have grown to be fantastic individuals.  The simple fact is, for those of us on the receiving end of taunts or criticisms often led by the biggest and strongest of the football players, it was much easier to avoid being noticed by any of them than to wait and find out whether they were the good kind or the other kind.

I’ve grown out of those early fears.  My life is just fine without football.  I did eventually learn the rules from watching my frat boy roommates play Madden in college as they finally explained what “first and ten” means.  (Yes, seriously.)  However, I will continue to refer to their “costumes” and ask about their “rehearsals” and offer every time that “they really should end these performances with a curtain call” because it amuses me to frame a world that terrified me once in the terms of the world where I felt most comfortable.

I don’t hold the sport of football responsible, after all, it’s “just a game”, and I certainly know that incredible and terrible people can be found in every profession, hobby or sport.  However, there is a strange cultural clash between what some boys are taught about what it means to play football, the kind of man you have to be to succeed at playing football and the stereotypical perceptions of what it means to be gay that have long been in conflict.

The world of the NFL is in great upheaval at the moment because of Michael Sam’s public revelation that he is a football player aspiring to join the professional world who also happens to be gay.  I was excited for Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers and the openly gay athletes in a number of other sports, but I hold a special appreciation for Michael Sam and his willingness to be the first in football and carry all of the baggage that has and will continue to come with that.

Football is as American as it gets.  It’s as masculine as it gets, from that certain point of view.  As the gay community gains momentum in equality through legislation and the courts, it is moments like this one with Michael Sam that will contribute equally by impacting our culture and perception of what it means, and more importantly what it doesn’t mean, to be gay.  Tolerance is a decent start on the road to acceptance to the destination of indifference – until it just doesn’t matter one way or the other if someone is gay.  The positive and negative extremes in the responses to Sam demonstrate that we aren’t there yet, but actions like his move us forward.

It moves all of us closer to the universal understanding that being gay has nothing to do with masculinity.  It has nothing to do with athleticism.  It has nothing to do with skill, or success or aptitude for any of the varied abilities that allow an individual to rise to the highest levels of any sport, art or profession.  Even more importantly, being gay isn’t a threat to your way of life, your masculinity, your heterosexuality or your ability to do the job you are hired to do to be working, playing or performing alongside someone who happens to be gay.

And maybe, just maybe, as Michael Sam continues his journey and is able to focus on doing the work of his chosen profession, his efforts, his success and the similar examples of those who will inevitably follow will teach a new generation of boys who fall in love with the game of football and end up in that special realm of the uber-popular that there isn’t any reason a gay kid can’t be there too.  Because no one will care.

Because that way, a boy like I was can know that even though he doesn’t and wouldn’t want to play football, it has nothing to do with the fact that he’s gay.  He’ll know it’s not that he can’t or shouldn’t play, because he can hold up the example of Michael Sam when someone shouts those awful words at him as though they make him less masculine or less of a man unable to compete at the highest levels of athletics and say, “it’s not that we can’t play football, it’s just that I personally don’t want to play.”

And I like football just a little bit more knowing that.  So thank you Michael Sam for giving even those of us who have no idea what you do someone we can look up to as another brave example of the simple fact that nothing about who we are should ever impact what we can achieve.

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