There was a time when the sports world was at the forefront of social revolution.
That statement may sound bizarre in the wake of Michael Sam’s announcement Sunday night that he is gay and potentially – probably – the first openly gay athlete in a major American pro sport. It is a big deal and it should be a big deal. But why did it take so long?
The problem is not with the men and women playing sports. It is with the men and women running sports and, to some extent, the men and women covering sports.
For the people in charge, professional sports have become defined by their rigid adherence to the status quo. For the people covering sports, the stories have been routinely massaged to fit a pre-existing narrative. It creates an atmosphere where anything out of the ordinary becomes a problem and tough to define, leading to a plethora of nuanced takes and extrapolations about the big picture.
There is also the problem that everything that happens is viewed through the prism of sports. It’s why Michael Sam comes out as gay and two of the most widely circulated stories on social media are about his draft status from anonymous general managers and a behind the scenes media story on Sam coming out.
Both stories paint the same picture – the worry that the men in charge of the NFL, those pushing past 50 and who grew up in a far different world, are the problem here.
The old guard, of course, is always the problem when it comes to change – if there was no need for change, the old guard wouldn’t be in the way.
When you think back through the history of sports in our country, you can picture the social and cultural milestones in our head.
Jessie Owens in Berlin – a black man embarrassing Adolf Hitler nearly 30 years before the Civil Rights Act was signed. Jackie Robinson playing major league baseball in Brooklyn while much of the nation drank from segregated water fountains.
Billie Jean King won her Battle of the Sexes as the feminist movement was taking hold – not ten years after it had.
Magic Johnson came to change the way Americans thought about AIDS, a disease people knew so little about that many still believe at the time it was a contagious disease, like the flu.
Contrast that to the completely backwards and obstructionist thinking from today’s leaders of sport.
It is mind-boggling that the NFL could have the first openly gay athlete when it has tried so hard to maintain the status quo. As the Frontline documentary showed, the NFL acted like Big Tobacco for the past 20 years trying to squash concussion research in this country. Instead of changing the world, the NFL let men die without telling them the true risks of the game to protect the shield.
Prior to the Super Bowl, Roger Goodell gave another window into his Cold War-era thinking by denouncing marijuana with the following quote that could have come from my D.A.R.E. handbook:
"It's questionable with respect to the positive impact, but there is certainly some very strong evidence to the negative impacts, including addiction and other issues."
Marijuana is legal in two states. Medical marijuana is legal in nearly half of this country’s 50 states. At this point, there are little to no question about its positive impacts for doctors who prescribe it. Marijuana addiction is a stretch and the other issues – well, Goodell couldn’t go into details about “other issues” since his league makes a small fortune from alcohol companies and has a bad history with drunk driving.
Nowhere is the “behind the times” nature of sports more evident than when it comes to race because everything needs to be about race. And I mean, other than the fact that football team in our nation’s capital has a racial slur for a nickname.
When Marcus Smart pushed a white Texas Tech fan on Saturday night, the discourse followed a predictable pattern. Did the fan drop the n-bomb? Did he really tell Smart to “go back to Africa?” Did he say nothing at all and Smart was playing into the negative black stereotype dumped on him after he kicked a chair?
The Texas Tech fan admitted to calling Smart a “piece of crap.” Somehow, the fan was allowed to volunteer to not attend any more Texas Tech games while Smart serves a three-game suspension.
Race, as it always does in sports, messed up what we should be talking about. ESPN trotted out Stephen A. Smith on Sunday to discuss the issue because there is nothing ESPN likes more than a little race-baiting to draw viewers.
In the end, Jeff Orr – the Texas Tech fan – was just a jackass. That’s the story, and it’s an important story. Not skin color, but old men taking way too much interest in the pursuits of college athletes. Once it was established race was not involved, the story lost all momentum. A 50-year old heckling a 20-year old gets far less page views than a 50-year old white man using a racial slut against a 20-year old black man.
The Smart incident is only the latest in a string of racially tinged stories that set the sports world back to 1960. When Richard Sherman gave his now infamous post-game interview after the NFC Championship Game, race came to define the aftermath.
It started because Sherman was interviewed by Erin Andrews – as if his responses would have been any different if Pam Oliver was holding the mic. It continued when Sherman himself equated the word “thug” with the n-word, saying that hockey goons are never called thugs. The media ran with this – presumably because none of them watches hockey – despite thug being a frequently used word to describe goons in hockey.
In Washington, D.C., Robert Griffin III has had his entire, brief career clouded by race – with one idiot from ESPN calling him a “cornball brother” for not being black enough, while another idiot now with ESPN blasting him for being too black.
Michael Sam said on Sunday he came out to his teammates before the 2013 season started. Despite it being apparently the worst-kept secret on campus, it remained one to the nation. This was due in large part to his teammates not really caring.
That’s where we are as a nation, for the most part. After Sam’s announcement, I thought about my employment history and I’ve had an openly gay co-worker every year since 2006, nearly a decade. At my last job, the woman who hired me was openly gay in a male-dominated, sales-driven, VC-funded technology company. The issue of her sexuality – even when she was not around – was rarely, if ever discussed. No one cared.
That’s where we need to be for issues such as race and sexual orientation – where no one cares because it’s accepted. But sports in 2014 are about 20 years behind America.
Lost in Sam’s coming out is the why – in particular, why on Sunday, February 9? The random date was forced because NFL scouts – in direct violation of the NFL’s harassment policy – were asking Sam’s agent if he had a girlfriend and if he’d been seen with girls.
There’s where sports are. Grown men asking around to see if a man is gay – the type of thing that would get you fired in almost every other way of life in this country is common practice in the NFL. And no one cares about that.
Even in their responses to Sam’s announcement, NFL clubs – under the cover of anonymity, of course – are using the impending media circus as why they would pass on drafting Sam. It’s the epitome of bullshit, as if NFL teams don’t deal with a crush of media on a daily basis.
Would a team pass on the Super Bowl because of the media circus? Of course not.
Would a team pass on Michael Sam because of the media circus? Of course.
The problem is not in locker rooms. The problem is in board rooms. Let’s hope Michael Sam marks the beginning of the end when it comes to sexual orientation dominating headlines.
But as long as Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith and other trolls are still employed by ESPN, I fear it’s just the beginning.
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