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Tilly: Reintegrating the NFL

BY ZACH TILLY | FEBRUARY 11, 2014 5:00 AM

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Michael Sam, an All-American defensive lineman from the University of Missouri, came out on Sunday. In April, he’ll almost certainly be the first openly gay NFL draftee.

Among cynics, there are those who think he may have made his announcement to boost his falling draft stock. (Maybe, but if you’re looking to shame somebody for blatantly cashing in on the post-inflection-point gay-rights movement, dial “M” for “Macklemore.”)

The attitude among the broader sports-commentary intelligents — maybe I’m extrapolating too much from the day-after torrent of think-pieces and tweets here — seems to be something like “who cares if he’s gay — I don’t and you shouldn’t, either.”

That’s a respectable liberal line, but I think “who cares” is the wrong tack to take here. To argue today that nobody should care that Michael Sam is gay isn’t very useful because it’s clear that a lot of people around the NFL do care. To insist that his announcement is no big deal is to imply that he’s not going to face considerable adversity in the pros.

The “no big deal” attitude is a byproduct of our erroneous tendency to hold-up high-profile institutions as places where good inevitably triumphs over evil. We believe that bad behavior — homophobia, racism, etc. — occurs in individuals, but the preponderance of good guys within a broader system will inevitably overshadow what “bad seeds” may exist. In other words, we collectively accept that a few players will be opposed to having an openly gay teammate but that a larger organization such as the Chicago Bears or the NFL couldn’t be anything but accommodating of gay athletes in the end.

In practice, this belief in “goodness-in-numbers” is everywhere. A few racially unequal laws don’t make the justice system unjust. A few malicious schemers don’t make the financial industry morally bankrupt. It helps us sleep at night.

But that line of reasoning doesn’t hold in the case of the NFL. The problems that have to this point kept gay athletes closeted or out of the league altogether seem to be systemic. The testosterone-addled old guys who run the NFL, it turns out, might not welcome gay players with open arms.

A few Sports Illustrated stories published after Sam’s announcement quoted 12 NFL executives, all anonymous, all of whom agreed that Sam’s sexuality would be a “distraction” for their team.

“In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game,” one of the executives said. “To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”

Such are the attitudes around the league. But what did you expect, really?

It would be foolish to think that the NFL would be any more accepting of gays than society more broadly. After all, despite our progress, a full third of the country still believes that it should be illegal for gay people to have consensual sex with each other.

Certainly a majority of guys affiliated with the NFL — like Sam’s teammates at Mizzou — won’t have a problem with a gay teammate or player. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to have it easy.

So you should care that Michael Sam is gay. Unlike forerunner Jason Collins, Sam’s career hasn’t begun yet. He’s got adversity in front of him, but he’s also got a unique chance to upend some of our most deeply held stereotypes about masculinity and sexuality.

You should care that Michael Sam is gay because he has the chance to shut a lot of people up.


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