One of the truly wonderful things about growing up, in any generation, is the ever-increasing lucidity that comes with age. Not lost on me, particularly over the last few months, is the notion that as I get older and (hopefully) more attuned to the world at large around me, I become infinitely more aware of life's... moments.
I remember watching a video interview with Penn Badgley (Yes, THAT Penn Badgley. Don't judge, you watched Gossip Girl, too), where he openly yearns for the sixties and seventies, a time when he distinctly recalls Jimmy Hendrix and Bob Dylan "playing at opposing ends of the street in Greenwich Village," a time when "the Village was the Village," something that I'm guilty of as well. To wit, I often find myself looking back on history and wishing that I was a part of some other generation's seminal events. I mean, who wouldn't have wanted to be there for Sinatra at the Paramount? Or in Berlin, to watch Jesse run? Or anywhere, really, during the "I Have a Dream" speech?
A byproduct then, of our current collective obsession with social media and the 24-hour news cycle is that it has become increasingly more difficult to differentiate between a "moment" that's simply viral, and one with actual cultural significance. And so when Michael Sam came out to the world on Sunday, although I knew it was... something, I was still unsure of which category it would fall into.
I must admit that I thought I'd missed my chance to write anything of substance on the subject when Jason Collins first came out. I struggled to collect myself in the immediate aftermath of his announcement and ultimately decided that if I didn't have anything insightful to say, it would be better to say nothing at all. Competing notions of acceptance and equality are, after all, wholly pervasive, particularly in the context of something as polarizing as professional sports. So when the news about Michael Sam broke, I felt as though I had been given a second chance. There have been a ton of different articles written on him already: About how this will affect his draft stock, about how it'll affect the locker room, about how Missouri dealt with it, about how NFL executives will deal with it, etc. But I think, in large part, the overall consensus is fairly clear: Michael Sam WILL be on an NFL roster next season, and it is very likely that he will play in a game. That fact alone is historic.
The more pressing concern for me then, was what I DIDN'T hear. So much of the response on Twitter and even the news in general was how fantastic this was (and, by association, how fantastic HE was). People even compared Michael to Jackie Robinson (although that got shot down fairly quickly as hyperbolic). And this outpouring of positivity was particularly uplifting given the amount of courage it took for him to 1) come out and 2) do so just as he is about to enter a historically conservative profession. The problem I have is that the opposite voice was never really heard from. And, despite the general flood of support in his direction, it would be naïve to think that suddenly, everyone would just accept him as he is. It wouldn't have taken until now for an active player to come out if that was the case. Which to me raises an even bigger question: Just how big of a gap is there between silence, and acceptance in this context?
While it would be nice to believe that society as a whole was capable of a sudden (and enlightened) ideological shift, where people were capable of identification beyond any label as to their sexual orientation, that's just not the case. This seems particularly true in football where two of the strongest historical purveyors of homophobia, the church and urban rap music, are massively ingrained in its culture. And so again, when I didn't (and still don't, really) hear anyone speaking out against Michael, I get concerned.
I guess it makes sense on some level. Everyone saw what happened to Chris Culliver: He spoke out and got blasted. Vilified, even. The same thing with Chris Broussard (on a smaller level) and that guy from Duck Dynasty. What this has done is created an unexpected, and somewhat unfortunate scenario of bullying in the most ironic sense (although I admittedly tread carefully when using that word in this context). Unless you're Rush Limbaugh, or someone like him who gets paid to be controversial, it really sucks to have a million people telling you where to stick it for simply expressing your opinion. And while my personal views are unequivocally on Michael's side, I don't think it helps to facilitate actual progress when people are afraid to express themselves. Silence, in this situation at least, appears to simply be a reaction towards our tendency for self-preservation. And that's a shame. No matter how much you may disagree with someone who has a negative opinion on gay rights, you'll never be able to get them to understand exactly why, if all you do is yell and scream at them. Maybe I'm wrong, but doesn't it seem rational to think that while people's minds and opinions can certainly change, that this doesn't occur on its own and certainly doesn't occur when someone is calling them an idiot and a bigot (and probably worse)?
Ultimately then, my hope is that Michael Sam's brave act doesn't continue to incur forced-silence, but rather, actively serves to facilitate discussion (either public or private) between those who agree with him, and those who don't. Some of this will fall on Sam himself, to help his teammates and those around him (including, apparently, his own father) identify him as a football player and a brother and a son, instead of by his sexual orientation. And some of that will fall on everyone else to be willing to have a coherent, open-minded discussion on the subject. Adrian Peterson, for example, is "not with gay marriage" but also "really wouldn't [be] bother[ed]" by having a gay teammate, a distinction that is tremendously important, today moreso than ever. Individual opinions aside, the willingness to accept someone, ALL of someone, is the first step towards progress for both Michael, and for the cause that he now champions. So who knows? Maybe in a few years, players will no longer be "gay" or "straight" but finally, just the names on the backs of their jerseys. And maybe "coming out" won't mean anything, because by then, "coming out" will be culturally archaic. And maybe then we'll know once and for all if Michael Sam's "moment" was actually as groundbreaking as it feels right now.