One of the best things about sports is watching the emotional reactions after a big moment. What can compare with an entire baseball team standing at the plate, waiting to jump on a teammate as he heads home after hitting a game-winning homer?
I always keep one eye on the “kiss and cry” area after an Olympic ice skating performance, waiting to see the tears flow one way or the other. My favorite, though is golf, when a player sinks the winning putt at a major and his wife comes running across the green to plant a kiss on his mouth.
So like a lot of people, I found it extraordinarily moving when Michael Sam broke down in tears Saturday after learning by phone that he had been selected by the Rams in the NFL draft, and when he hugged and kissed his partner who rushed up to comfort him.
But there were some who had a problem with the scene, which was captured in its entirety on ESPN. Sam is the first openly gay man ever drafted into the NFL. This was two men kissing, a gay public display of affection for everyone to see! Don Jones, a second-year defensive back with the Dolphins, tweeted “OMG” and “horrible” after watching it.
Derrick Ward, a former Giants running back and Texans running back, tweeted “Man, U got little kids lookin at the draft. I can’t believe ESPN even allowed that to happen.”
That’s the twisted beauty of Twitter. You can say the first dumb, insensitive thing that comes to mind and it goes out to the entire world. Jones later apologized, of course. When an athlete or other public figure says something offensive, you can count on a quick, insincere apology, generally scripted by an agent or publicist.
Jones plays for Miami, remember, the team that brought us the NFL bullying scandal. He was fined for his tweet, excused from the team and ordered to undergo educational training after meeting with team officials. I wonder if he was one of the players who looked up to Richie Incognito as a team leader during the hazing of Jonathan Martin.
Ward didn’t back down from his homophobic diatribe. He said he simply blocked anyone with a dissenting point of view. Of course, Ward is retired. He didn’t need to apologize. He no longer has to employ people who profit from his good public image.
I don’t imagine Sam is too concerned about the rants of an ignorant minority. When he came out in February, he knew what was in store. Anyone who had the courage to become the first openly gay NFL player wasn’t likely to be intimidated by a few insensitive tweets.
Sure, people have the right to free speech. The right to be stupid is a proud American tradition. There are some who felt ESPN went a little overboard by showing the kiss over and over on the highlights. They’re within their rights, too.
But as a culture, we’re supposed to be moving beyond the shock of seeing two men show affection for one another. I’m sure there are lots of people who recoiled when they saw Sam and his boyfriend kiss, just as I’m certain there were countless members of the gay community who cheered it as a pivotal moment in the struggle.
What bothers me is the undercurrent of objection to it being overt. I imagine Ward isn’t the only one saying, ‘Hey, it’s OK if you want to hang out with your gay friends and kiss, but don’t do it in front of me and my kids. Don’t shove it in my face.’ ”
Where have I heard that lately?
Oh, yeah. Donald Sterling.
That was Sterling’s basic message to his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, on the infamous tape? It was OK for her to hang out with her black friends, like Magic Johnson, but he didn’t want her bringing them to games or flaunting it on Facebook.
Keep it hidden, out of sight. Sterling apologized the other day and said he wasn’t a racist. He was merely trying to get V. into bed. I suppose he’s not a sexist, either, and the people who think gays don’t belong in NFL locker rooms aren’t homophobes.
Don’t they understand that intolerance is exactly that, wanting to maintain your personal and ideological distance from people who are different? We’re supposed to be better than that today, elevated by a younger generation that has outgrown prejudice (despite the nagging tendency of young guys to use “gay” as a pejorative).
Well, Sam is going to get his shot in the NFL. I imagine the league honchos were relieved when the Rams drafted him late in the final round. There would have been an outcry of suspicion that teams had been scared off by his sexual orientation.
Sam was projected as a mid-round pick at the end of last season at Missouri. He was downgraded to a late-rounder after disappointing pre-draft workouts. Going into the draft, it was seen as 50-50 whether he even would get picked, despite being co-defensive player of the year in the SEC, the best league in America.
The word on Sam is that he wasn’t fast enough to play outside linebacker, not big and strong enough to play defensive end. They say his hips are too stiff. He had to have something going for him to be the defensive star on a top SEC team, one of the most dynamic playmakers in the country.
I’ll be rooting for Sam. I’m proud that the first openly gay player went to Missouri, my alma mater. Now I have something to brag about besides the journalism school. I never saw Mizzou as especially evolved on social issues, but it sounds as if Sam felt comfortable and accepted in Columbia and the state.
St. Louis is a good place for him. There are more Missouri fans there than anywhere else. It’s the one fan base where they identify Sam more as a football player than a trailblazing gay man. They’ll be pulling for one of their own.
Maybe he’s not good enough. But it’s hard to believe there isn’t a place in the NFL for a guy who tormented offenses in the SEC. Maybe his speed and strength didn’t impress the scouts, but the combine can’t calculate the size of a man’s courage and competitive heart.
He’s a true warrior in my book, as tough and brave a football player as I’ve ever seen.