On May 10, 2014, Michael Sam received a phone call from the St. Louis Rams. The team rang to announce that it was drafting him. The cameras, already waiting in Sam’s house, zoomed in as he absorbed the news. He turned, like so many before him, and kissed his significant other. But for the first time in NFL history, Michael Sam turned and kissed a man.
The weight of the moment was and still remains nearly impossible to overestimate. It was aptly put by Barack Obama’s White House: “The President congratulates Michael Sam, the Rams and the NFL for taking an important step forward today in our Nation’s journey.”
The loudest voices, however, were the dissenters. From Fox News pundits to fellow NFL players, Sam had to weather a blistering backlash for that kiss.
Ironically, I too was irked as I watched Sam celebrate his phone call — but for a radically different reason. You see, Michael Sam was the 249th out of 256 picks. If you can name one other seventh-round draft pick — no, Tom Brady went in the sixth — you and the guy who paints his entire body for the game are the lone fanatics who can.
To me, Michael Sam’s sexual orientation was irrelevant. He was just another guy drafted in the last round; and I doubted cameras had waited in the home of a seventh-rounder previously. The special attention paid to Sam seemed to highlight the fact that he was gay, when, in reality, all that should have mattered was his football talent.
Michael Sam was the first openly gay man to be drafted in the NFL, but he never ended up playing in a regular season game. To date, no openly gay man has. It will be a monumental day when a gay man laces up and walks out of an NFL tunnel before 80,000 fans. But maybe more importantly, there might be a day when a gay athlete stepping on the field does not generate a single headline.
Like the breaking of every barrier, the flood comes first. Jackie Robinson went through hell to become the first African-American in the MLB. Now, Aaron Judge is the face of baseball. The reality is not the same for gay athletes. And yet, the barrier is already broken; Sam’s kiss spelled the dam’s death knell. In today’s world, sexual orientation is an obstacle for LGBTQ athletes, but a surmountable one.
Here at Yale, there is a group to support any LGBTQ athletes as they face that barrier. Supporting Athletes at Yale was founded in 2015 by and for LGBTQ student-athletes on campus. The group consists of 20-plus members. SAY is not entirely unique to college campuses, but remains a rarity nonetheless. One of its founders, varsity golfer Jake Leffew ’19, noted that there are three phases in the breaking of a barrier: the front-page shock, transition and regularity. LGBTQ athletes stand in that transition: not headline material, but not “no-big-deal” either.
SAY’s slogan is, “If you can play, you can play.” The slogan speaks to the heart of sports: More than anything, they are society’s great equalizer. The journey to that equality is tumultuous. But the dam has been broken.
Just last month, Robbie Rogers retired from professional soccer. For four seasons, Rogers played as an openly gay man and won an MLS Cup along the way. Admittedly, soccer gains significantly less attention than football in America. But the fact that you might not have ever heard of Rogers is a sign of progress in that transition. If an openly gay soccer player can play for four years without the nation’s constant attention, maybe one day, a football player can too.
Kevin Bendesky | email@example.com