I've always been a proud female athlete. I benefitted from Title IX and the feminist movement and was honored to play my own part in the female sports narrative by competing on the 1994 Winter Olympic Team. Over the years I've gladly donned my 'girl power' t-shirts and hats, given talks to lots of young girls about the powerful impact sports can have on their lives and quickly gone to bat for any female athlete I've seen getting a raw deal.
I've also yearned for the day when we can just drop the "female" and move on to simply calling athletes, "athletes." When do we all get to drop the qualifiers, the caveats, the differences, the power struggles, the endless analysis and just ... be?
In that spirit, when Michael Sam became the first openly gay player to be drafted in the NFL, I just wanted to ignore it altogether. I didn't want yet another new title -- "Gay" NFL Player -- to take away from the athlete. Don't misunderstand: I was thrilled at the news of Sam's heroism. I am grateful for his courage and inspired by his strength.
But I have little ones of my own now -- two boys, a five-year-old and a two-year-old -- and I want to believe that at least they can live in a world where athletes -- and anyone for that matter -- can just ... be.
My kids are lucky to live in a community where differences are common. It's not a perfect blend, if there is such a thing. But same-sex parents, straight parents and bi-racial couples are all a part of our intimate and diverse community.
This is normal for my boys. In their little world, the World is really like this. It is a beautiful bubble, and I want to keep it intact.
So when Sam's fate as the first "Openly Gay" NFL player became a fact earlier this month, I wanted to celebrate with my boys. I really, really did. But to explain to them why this day was cause for such celebration would only mean one thing: poking a giant hole in that precious bubble.
Here were my choices: intentionally introduce them to the history of hatred, exclusion and shame that makes Sam's accomplishment such a monumental victory. Or a nap and some cookies.
I was tempted to opt for the nap, because opening the floor to ugliness can be so frightening. My kid is five. Do I really need to talk with him about how someone can be hated for loving? So I asked the biggest Steelers fan I know -- a close friend who, along with his husband, is raising six-year-old twins. Did he say anything to the kids when Sam got drafted?
"I told them it was exciting," he said, "because this is the first time that someone who says he loves a man is going to play in the NFL."
Boom. I realized: all it takes is a conversation.
No bubble got burst. In fact, my five-year-old had little reaction to my announcement. But key language and dialogue had been floated. Important, positive words like 'love' and 'games' got put into a new context for him. I'm convinced those words will become building blocks that will offer him support when the questions became more complicated.
Had that kind of openness been common during my years on the U.S. Ski Team, maybe the environment would have more hospitable for my lesbian teammates to come out. At least five of them have done so since retiring; imagine how much faster they might have skied had they been feeling honest with themselves and the world around them. And come to think of it, imagine how much better that could have made me.
And imagine how it would have felt a few years later when I worked at ESPN -- the American epicenter of jock worship and machismo. Perhaps open conversations in the newsroom would have long since ushered in an era of openly-LGBT sports commentators and reporters; even a more inclusive and accepting sports culture.
Obviously, we're not there yet. In the last few weeks, I've heard people exasperated by the Michael Sam story. "Do we really have to talk about this?" they ask. "Can't we just focus on football? If he's good, he's good. We're all fine with it."
Maybe. But the implicit statement there is, "Let's stop talking." I recognize myself in those sentiments, but I also now see why I was wrong to equate omission with progress. Dropping the labels doesn't work. Talking about them gets us to a place where differences are the norm.
Just like President Barack Obama being elected didn't eliminate discrimination in America, Michael Sam being drafted into the NFL won't eliminate homophobia and discrimination in sports.
But at least we're talking about it.
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