When I first heard in March that Michael Sam was going to be awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs, I didn't understand the power of that decision. I knew it was "cool," I knew it was "great recognition." What I didn't understand was how perfectly the presentation of that award was going to set the stage for the final act of this transformative year in sports, and how clearly that award would reflect the journey Michael and the entire professional sports world has embarked on since he shared himself fully with the rest of the world.
This is the year of Michael Sam. I said it in February, and I'll say it again: When we look back at 2014, Michael's journey will have been the seminal American story that defines the year. It started with a decision by Michael to come out, followed by a whirlwind of media, the Combine, the Pro Day, the Draft, the kiss, the cake, Oprah, OTAs.... It has been Michael's journey, but we have all been right there with him like few athletes before him. All of it has led to these next six weeks that will decide in large part how this story ends.
That presentation Wednesday night on ESPN was extraordinary. The network went to painstaking lengths to tell his story in a rich and powerful way. What many people don't understand is the tedious dedication it takes to create a five-minute video about someone's life. I felt honored to be in 10 seconds of that video; That flash on the screen took two hours in my home to film. To build a story like ESPN did, with visits to Michael's hometown, the Univ. of Missouri, St. Louis, his draft "party," and all of the other little details, it took an exemplary crew with a powerful vision and untold resources to build. ESPN, the worldwide leader in sports, was dedicated and proud to tell that story of a gay man and acknowledge the role Michael has played in shifting our culture with his bravery.
At the ESPYs, Sam was surrounded by his team. Agents Cameron Weiss and Joe Barkett were there. St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher hugged Michael when it was time for him to accept the award, as did Rams general manager Les Snead. The legendary Jim Brown embraced Michael. Robin Roberts, last year's Arthur Ashe Award winner, gave him a kiss. Kevin Durant in his green jacket in the front row, along with the rest of the crowd, gave the historic figure a standing ovation.
Think about that. The NBA's MVP and one of the NFL's great running backs stood and applauded - and in one case embraced - an openly gay NFL player as the nation's leading sports media outlet gave him their highest honor.
This was supposed to be impossible.
I remember after the NFL Draft some people asking me if Michael's tears were real, if his whole reaction was a big act for the cameras. As I watched his acceptance speech Wednesday night and saw the tears not just in his eyes, but in the eyes of so many others listening to his story and what he's learned on this journey, as I received text messages from around the country from people who had been moved by what they saw, the answer to the question about Michael's draft-day tears could never have been more self-evident.
Everything isn't suddenly better in sports for gay men like Michael. There is still a wall around conversations and banter. There are still those in sports who oppose men like Michael simply because he's gay. Two hours before Michael accepted that award on stage, an athlete refused an interview by me because I simply wanted to talk about gay men in his sport. There is still a long way to go. We must do better.
Yet Wednesday night was about courage. Whether you're for or against gay people, whether you believe Michael should be able to marry his boyfriend if he so chooses, there is no denying that Michael is a man of great courage and was the right person to accept that award on that stage. That courage will help lead us to a day - sooner than later - when bias against an entire class of people is in the distant past. That courage not only inspires LGBT athletes to be themselves, but it inspires straight NFL players who see Michael's inner strength and are moved by it. Don't think for a second that that was lost on many in the ESPYs audience.
I've disagreed with Michael on just one thing since I met him six months ago. He has said all along that he's just a football player. He's not. Michael Sam represents the hopes and dreams of that entire class of people who have been waiting for someone to set them free from our society's last closet. When history looks back, it will look back at Michael Sam, a deeply courageous man who changed the face of professional sports. Forever.
In the coming weeks, with his Arthur Ashe Courage Award sitting on his mantle, I can't wait to see how he fulfills his transformative destiny.
Follow Cyd Zeigler on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cydzeigler