Too often in profiles on celebrities, or politicians or athletes we note that they are "having a moment." That, or some arbitrary measure of 15 minutes of influence or fame. I want to believe Black N.F.L. prospect, Texas native and SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam has more than that.
After completing his stellar college football run as a defensive end for the Missouri Tigers, Mr. Sam came out and is now posed to be the first openly queer professional football player. This is nothing small. Too often, communities of color are reduced to finite ways of social mobility, and the way we "get out of bad situations" are pathologized and critiqued. Too often the dreams our sons and daughters have of being athletes and artists are trivialized by politics of respectability. But as we have seen in recent showing by Wade Davis, Richard Sherman and now Michael Sam our athletes are doing a resistive and culturally revolutionary work.
I will, not for a moment, feign understanding for football or most sports rules and regulations but as cultural entities; I can understand athletes. Athletes have the grand stage and social capital as any other entertainer; while you cannot buy their album or see them in concert, every week our athletes are on a national stage, their likeness in the form of jerseys on school children and adult fans fill the streets on game days, epic photos become profile pictures for the camera shy Facebookers. Athletes do a cultural work, and they rely on us for longevity. Michael Sam has rightfully and smartly positioned himself to do a similar work.
Mr. Sam's revolutionary work begins with the way he "came out." Alternatively to large scale, rumor mill, fueled outing of far too many, Sam chose to come out to his family and friends before opening himself up to the national stage his athleticism had presented for him. High-profile "outings," whether personal or forced, always seem like an extremely dangerous task for the brave individuals to do so. By telling the world, there seems to be more control and a safety in removing the stigma and violence of being outed. And while I want a world where a queer athlete doesn't make news, there is a certain power in keeping their nuanced narratives central to their careers. While it should never be a source of discrimination, it should never not matter that Michael Sam or any athlete is queer. Erasing how revolutionary that is, erases the war-zone of which he is entering.
From the global stage and the athletic fetishization of Polynesian and Pacific Islander athletes to the hazing of Jonathon Martin and Redskins Debauchery, to the reported viciously homophobic and racist locker room culture that can be found from stadiums to middle schools, Michael Sam is entering a war-zone. But he is entering with his identity and "truth" as he so eloquently puts it. He enters with a solid team of friends, families and based on his descriptions, true allies. But the war barely stops with his teammates. Being privy to the one of the largest national stages forces our entertainers to become transparent, consumed and marketed around the world.
I fear Michael Sam is going to be co-opted by queer movements as the face of queer exceptionalism. That "because he can do it anyone can." This is a huge slap in the face to the unknown number of queer athletes who haven't been afforded the same safety nets that have blessed Michael Sam. We need to support him without demeaning the others in the caught in the traditionally toxic spaces of sports gender politics. We must see his work in the canon of Richard Sherman, who defies norms of respectability or accepted performances of race. We must see his work in the canon of Wade Davis, demanding a reimagining of queer persons in the sports world. We must see his work in the canon of Brittany Griner, demanding to be the best athlete who can stand proud in their identity.
As he enters the larger public stage, let us offer our support to an exceptional athlete, an eloquent speaker and captivating role model. He has the tools to be a new and impactful face for a cultural change in how we see our athletes, our black men and our queer icons. The groundwork has been laid by other athletes coming out after retirement, international athletes coming out and most recently the deserved stardom of Brittney Griner; Michael Sam has the power to do a work, I hope he will have much more than a moment.
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