Unsportsmanlike Conduct

In 2010, when the Foo Fighters were recording Wasting Light, the band decided to bring in singer/songwriter Bob Mould to lend his amazing voice to the track “Dear Rosemary”. Watch the documentary “Back and Forth” and you’ll see the recording process. It’s delightful, and the song is tremendous. And I’m certain that when it came time to put the call in to Bob to see if he’d be willing to collaborate, nobody said “Gee, I don’t know. Bob’s gay, and there could be some backlash.”

I mention this story just to point out the contrast between the world of entertainment, and the world of sports. Presuming you haven’t been living under a rock the last week or so, you’ve probably heard the name Michael Sam pop up in the news or social media. Michael Sam is an All-American defensive lineman who played for the University of Missouri, and was expected to be picked up somewhere in the middle rounds of the upcoming NFL draft. This may still happen.

Or it may not. Because last week, Michael Sam announced that he is gay. And apparently, there are rumblings in the sports world that this ‘revelation’ could kill Sam’s chances of being drafted. Because, sadly, the NFL is still a world driven by testosterone and machismo.

Never mind that at Mizzou, Sam came out to his coaches and teammates last summer, to little fanfare. In fact, his announcement then simply confirmed what many athletic staff members and Sam’s teammates already suspected. Sam recalls being scared at the time, but said he was shown nothing but support from his college family.

His decision to come out publicly now, he said, was driven by the fact that he wanted the news to be public before the draft. ” I want to own my truth. No one else should tell my story but me.”

By coming out now, Sam leaves it to team owners and coaches to decide if his impressive skills as a lineman will fill a need for them, and whether they can look beyond his sexual orientation and give him a job based solely on his abilities. Sam is not ashamed of who he is. The question now is, will an NFL franchise step up and draft him on the merits, or will they insist that having an openly gay player on the roster is too much of a “distraction”?

If this were any other profession, there would be no story here. A gay accountant or attorney? Nobody cares. A musician, like Bob Mould, or a teacher or a sales representative? It doesn’t matter. Our society is finally becoming more accepting, and it’s high time. While the issue of marriage equality is still being hammered out at the state level, most people have come to accept that – SHOCKER! – gay people walk among us. They always have. Now they don’t have to hide.

Except, it would seem, in the NFL. In that world, being gay is a problem. Being a criminal, however, is okay. There are dozens of stories about NFL players in trouble with the law. Michael Vick, Aaron Hernandez, Josh Brent, Richie Incognito, Plaxico Burress. The list of names goes on and on.

As does the list of charges: murder, manslaughter, DWI, using drugs, buying drugs, selling drugs, spouse abuse, child abuse, animal abuse, solicitation. You get the picture. But all of this is acceptable. Or at least it’s tolerated. You know how it is; boys will be boys. Which is fine, as long as they’re only having sex with girls.

Sportswriter Peter King, in his column The Monday Morning Quarterback, reported that he talked with three NFL general managers and one team scout about the potential for a backlash for the team who drafts Michael Sam. For the sake of honesty, he assured them anonymity.

Of the four, only one of the GMs was decidedly negative. He prefaced his remarks by saying of Sam, selected as the Southeast Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, “We don’t think he’s a very good player.” Of Sam’s sexual orientation, he said “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.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you and your players, Mr. Homophobic General Manager, but just because Michael Sam is the first player to come out prior to the NFL draft, he is, by no means, the first gay man to play in the NFL. I’m going to venture a guess and say that gay players have been in the locker room alongside straight players since football came into existence. The only difference is, these players now feel more comfortable opening up about their sexual orientation.

You don’t have to be a football fan to know how things work in the NFL. The team that wins the most games gets the big prize. Players get big bonuses, coaches get big raises, owners make big bucks, and fans get to wear t-shirts and caps announcing that their team was the best. Winning is what matters. That’s it.

So if winning is what matters in the NFL, won’t a smart team do its damnedest to draft the players who will help in this effort? And ultimately, if a smart, talented player has the particular skill set that your team needs, are you really going to pass him by because you’re not comfortable with who he chooses to spend his private time with when he’s off the field? Really? Because that’s just piss-poor management, if you ask me.

Back to King’s column. The team scout indicated that Sam’s success in the draft depends on team leadership. “A team with strong leadership at coach and in the locker room, like New England, I would imagine, would be okay. I could see (no-nonsense coach Bill) Belichick say, ‘This is the way it is. There’s no story.’ And guys would just accept him. There’d be no choice. But without that strong leadership, I could see it being divisive, and I could see a team saying, ‘We don’t need this.’ ”

Former Patriot Donte Stallworth, in a series of tweets last week, agreed, and summed it up perfectly: If a team can’t handle the media scrutiny of drafting a gay player, he wrote, “Your team is already a loser on the field.” Stallworth said that a team that’s focused on playing well and winning games will not allow itself to be distracted by outside issues that have no bearing on the game itself.

One of my proudest moments as a Texan (and with our cadre of open-mouth-insert-foot politicians, they don’t happen often) came in the wake of Sam’s announcement last week, when local sportscaster Dale Hansen addressed this story. Hansen, well-known for always speaking his mind and never shying away from controversy, gave a thoughtful and eloquent commentary. I hope every NFL team owner, manager, coach and player heard it, and takes his words to heart.

Michael Sam just wants to play in the NFL. That’s his dream. I hope he gets his shot.

Here’s Dale Hansen:

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5 thoughts on “Unsportsmanlike Conduct

  1. I applaud Dale Hansen for speaking out about the homophobia in the sports world. Especially FOOTBALL. It has never been my favorite sport because of the high incidence of injury (especially to the brain), from a concussion. I applaud Michael Sam for being forthright and announcing his sexuality even though it shouldn’t matter one bit! If there are repercussions because of his announcement, you can bet I will be there to sign any petition, to speak up, to SCREAM. Get over it, people. Let it be.

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