CHELSEA, NY – I remember the episode of Mad Men, when tortured Sal Romano entertains Ken Cosgrove from Sterling-Cooper for Dinner, and his wife Kitty must fight for Sal’s attention when all Sal wants is a few stolen moments with… Cosgrove. This was the early 1960s and Romano felt compelled, on every level, to keep his sexuality to himself. He believed it would be social and career suicide to even hint at his homosexuality, particularly in the high-testosterone, alpha male environment that was Madison Avenue back in the day. He was probably right even here in liberal pre-Stonewall New York City.
Sal Romano wasn’t comfortable even considering coming “out” in those days and in that environment, but we learned this weekend of a brave young man named Michael Sam, who’s got loads of courage and lots of gumption. Michael Sam was a Defensive End for the University of Missouri football team, and was named the Defensive Player of the Year in the Southeast Conference. This is not chopped liver. The SEC, after all, boasts perennial National Championship caliber teams like Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Florida and Texas A&M. Sam earned that conference’s top individual Defensive award. Sam also graduated from Missouri with his degree in December of 2013, meaning that it took him just 3 and a half years to graduate – or exactly one half the time it took for me, and Short Matt to earn ours (we blame SportsCenter and the USA Today Sports Section).
Sam grew up in a small Texas town, where violence and/or drugs claimed 3 of his siblings’ lives – and Sam still has 2 brothers in prison. So growing up, Michael Sam had it as rough as anyone. Still, he persevered and succeeded by anyone’s criteria. Michael Sam happens to be gay. He “came out” to his Missouri teammates before this past season and the reception and acceptance of his sexuality was largely a “non-issue” with his team. College football teams can be rather insular and in the best circumstances; a soft landing spot for support and camaraderie that may not be as readily available in the NFL. Because for every Brandon Ayanbedajo and Chris Kluwe – two champions of equality in the NFL – there are countless examples of players who may not be supportive… and may well be outwardly hostile to someone seen as an “outsider” or as a threat to their comfort and even their sensibilities. WATCH THIS.
Many current players have been supportive and admire Sam’s “courage.”
Panthers Running Back DeAngelo Williams:
“I could care less about a man’s sexual preference! I care about winning games and being respectful in the locker room!”
Jonathan Martin, who knows a thing or two about facing a hostile locker room also offered his support:
“Hats off to you Michael Sam, that takes some guts!”
Other Tweets of support came in from NFL legends like Deion Sanders and Tiki Barber, each confident that Sam would get a chance to play in the NFL and would get to do so with no worse a rookie indoctrination than any other 1st year player. Others weren’t so sure it would be smooth sailing for the former Mizzou standout.
Jonathan Vilma, for example never had a problem with knocking a guy’s head off for a couple of extra bounty bucks, but the idea of a gay teammate throws him for a loop:
“Imagine if he’s the guy next to me, and you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me, how am I supposed to respond?”
Give Vilma at least some credit for putting his name on the quote.
One anonymous NFL GM had this to say.
“We talked about it this week… First of all, we don’t think he’s a very good player. The reality is he’s an overrated football player in our estimation. He’s not going to get drafted where he thinks he should. The question you will ask yourself, knowing your team, is, ‘How will drafting him affect your locker room?’ And I am sorry to say where we are at this point in time, I think it’s going to affect most locker rooms. A lot of guys will be uncomfortable. Ten years from now, fine. But today, I think being openly gay is a factor in the locker room.”
When Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, the quotes then were also mostly supportive, and most players professed a belief that there wouldn’t be too much of a reaction from his teammates or opposing players. We now know that Robinson faced merciless and unimaginable racial epithets daily from teammates and opponents. Jackie went through hell. Two things ultimately enabled Jackie to win acceptance slowly: Jackie was an All-Star player who revolutionized the game… And Jackie had Pee Wee Reese, a widely respected All-Star teammate who stuck up for him, showing other players that it was “OK” to accept and even befriend Jackie. Here’s hoping these things break right for Sam too, and he finds his Pee Wee. Being the first at anything is daunting. I wish him luck.
Tune in tomorrow for a man that has struggles with his identity and what the hell he’s doing here every Wednesday, Angry Ward.