Michael Sam, Out Of Missouri

In Columbia, everyone is proud of Michael Sam for what he did. But here and everywhere else, this story is a long way from over.
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There are a great many people who do not want to talk about what it means that Michael Sam will, in all likelihood, become the first openly gay player in the NFL. There are, also, a great many ways in which these people -- who must work without the authority or anonymity of the NFL personnel types explaining to Peter King why it can’t or won’t or shouldn’t happen -- express their unwillingness to talk about it. But the most popular, in the days since Sam came out in public, is to ask “Why is this news?”

This is a rhetorical question -- with a rhetorical answer of “ew, gross, and what about the showers” -- but we might as well take it as an actual question: why is any sports thing news? Blake Griffin allegedly but not really beating up the personification of what the Heritage Foundation worries will take over the country is news to some, and not to others. Workers unionizing -- or at least having the chance to unionize -- at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee is news to some, and not to others. You get the idea: while the dictionary can tell us objectively what news should be, the audience decides subjectively what it "is."

As a grad student and as a journalist at Mizzou, my first thought in hearing Sam's announcement was, of course, to cover it -- being under the media's microscope for the second time in as many months gives you a chance to chase stories the likes of which you haven't gotten to cover before, and which, in Sam’s case, no one else has covered before, either. This is exciting and worthwhile and not without its obvious professional benefits; reporting on Sam gave me my first national stories on NPR. But, the more I thought about it, the more I wondered about whether a teaching school of journalists could cover something going on just down the road. We had, for one thing, already been missing it.

Apparently, the drumbeat accompanying Sam's coming out had been sounding for months. Some on campus were quick to gallingly declare the moral high ground by not reporting Sam's orientation ahead of time, as if being more sensitive than Grantland on matters of this sort was now the gold standard for journalists. (Also, the subtle griping from the columnist that he didn't give his adopted hometown's press right of first refusal doesn't do many favors).

But there’s more to it than that. As a journalist, it's tough to detach yourself from the coverage and achieve the level of (elusive, maybe even impossible) objectivity we strive for when the attention is on something with which you're intimately familiar, and about which you hold resoundingly un-objective opinions. I'll readily admit to being a fan of the Missouri Tigers football team -- a quick look at my Twitter feed during game days will prove as much -- but, at the same time, I've never been to a game at Faurot Field and I wouldn't be able to recognize a Mizzou player if he walked past me on the way to The Heidelberg or Shakespeare's. Regardless, the question remains: when you're cheering for a player to do well on the field, can you cover him objectively off it? And what about when what the player represents off the field -- the positive change he represents in his sport and the culture at large -- is worth cheering even more.

I'll be honest -- when Sam made his announcement, I couldn't help but feel proud of my school. Objectivity, worthwhile a goal though it is, doesn’t supplant the thrill of being in an historic moment. Here was a groundbreaking event in the world of sports, and a step forward for our society as a whole, was happening just down the street. The student newspaper ran the simplest of headlines, and needed no further explanation. Any member of the Mizzou community -- student, alum, professor, whomever -- must have smiled at seeing famed Rock M at Faurot augmented to spell out Sam’s last name.

This is big, and Columbia is, at the moment, at the center of it -- in this moment, something great and significant is happening here. That Sam enjoyed the support of what seemed the entire university community wasn’t a surprise, maybe -- after all, Columbia is a college town through and through, and everyone here is a Tigers fan. But there’s something uniquely heartening about this outpouring of support and affection for an openly gay football player in a state where  71 percent of voters banned same-sex marriage a decade ago.

In the classes where I'm a teaching assistant, I say that journalism as a process is objective because we as humans can never be. That's how we can personally believe that something like the purported Griffin-Bieber kerfuffle -- if you missed it, the former purportedly but almost certainly didn’t slap the latter -- is nothing more than pap, and yet still dutifully report it. Maybe that's a cop-out, and maybe the problematic objectivity question is better left to media ethics practitioners and ombudspeople.

This abstraction plays into the "giving the people what they want" ethos that drives hackish zero-calorie uplift concerns like Upworthy and its various viral copycats, but also allows us as journalists to get the detachment we so desperately seek. That, ideally, is what allows us cover the stories we cover more fully, and better. There is a school of thought, as you probably know, that says such a thing is impossible. And also there’s Michael Sam, and what he represents, and everything else.

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In some ways, you'd think that Sam's announcement was inevitable, and that covering it would as such would be easy. After all, it's 2014. People are more on board with the idea of giving loving couples the right to marry, regardless of their partner’s gender. The law of averages simply dictated that an athlete at the apex of his career playing one of the country's big sports would come out, eventually. Everyone already knew they were out there, commingled with their fellow elite athletes and, in every meaningful way, not at all unlike them.

But, if that's the case, why didn't we hear more announcements after Jason Collins broke the mold? For one, his coming out was a low-risk, high-reward gambit, both for himself and for the league's teams: GMs and player development folks could point to Collins' declining productivity as the rationale for not signing him, rather than latent homophobia or hand-wringing over some coded phrase like "locker room chemistry." In Michael Sam, we have the Defensive Player of the Year in the nation’s best college football conference -- an award for being as productively macho as someone Sam’s age going to get -- instead of someone on the precipice of retiring and joining a regional sports network's pre- and post-game highlights show. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, Sam coming out before he embarks on a professional career, critics be damned, is as ballsy as it is risky simply because nobody has done this before. We don't know what will happen as a result. And, as some of the coverage of Sam’s coming out has shown, there is some uncertainty about how to cover it.

The reaction to Sam's courage, apart from some NFL execs who dare not speak their names, has largely been one of self-satisfied nonchalance. There's a proclivity to pat ourselves on the back, and say, "Well done. We are a progressive society, and we welcome the inclusion of an openly gay athlete on any given Sunday. We shall leave it at that." But, of course, that’s not quite it.

Writing Sam's announcement off as not being news -- not for the why-is-this-news reason of not wanting to talk about it, but because of some strained wish to seem unsurprised by it -- seems foolhardy at best. We aspire to be at the point where big-whoop nonchalance is the de rigueur response to anyone coming out, a la the many Facebook statuses from my friends (and maybe yours as well), expressing support for Sam but regret that he had to go through the motions of coming out in the first place would indicate. But lord knows we're not there yet.

After all, Sam’s announcement comes at a time when Sam couldn't marry his partner in more than half of the country, not to mention Texas, his home state, or Missouri, where he went to school. LGBTQ youth face far higher levels of bullying than their heterosexual peers, still. Civil rights legislation impacting the LGBTQ community is a patchwork quilt of Rumsfeldian unknown knowns, still. There is no sense in congratulating ourselves on being over it. It is, in point of fact, not over.  

There's a reason Cyd Zeigler of Outsports said Sam's coming out was "the most important coming out, I think, that the gay sports world has had, and maybe that gay people in general have had." It's because the cognitive dissonance in being tolerant of LGBTQ individuals in sporting but not political arenas remains real. It's because there are countless young athletes out there who want to play professional sports but have no analogue to look up to as proof that it’s possible.

So, when people ask whether or not Michael Sam coming out is news, we ought to know that it has to be -- even though we all wish it weren't as big a deal as it is. It’s news if for no other reason than that those who follow him will simply be called athletes, without reference to their orientation. We're getting there, but we're not there yet. And we ought not pretend to be over it, given that, in this case, we’ve only just begun.


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