Best part of Michael Sam fallout for Benedictine's Messersmith? Shoulders shrugging
For Jallen Messersmith, the Benedictine forward who last May became the first openly gay active men's college basketball player in the country, it's a huge sign of progress that so many are saying 'So what?' to Michael Sam's proclamation that he is gay.
Jallen Messersmith acknowledges that homosexuality remains a stigma that must be overcome in sports, but he welcomes the progress he has seen, particularly in the wake of the Michael Sam announcement Sunday.
Photo Courtesy: Benedictine College Sports Information Office
By Sean Keeler
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Who cares? Can he play?
And so it went. Line after line, conversation after conversation, email after email, text after text.
In the days after Missouri All-American Michael Sam told the world he was gay, it came independently, from friends and colleagues and strangers of all religious and political persuasions.
Which is all Jallen Messersmith has ever hoped for. Hell, it's all he's ever asked for.
"Exactly," says Messersmith, the Benedictine (Kan.) College forward who came out last spring as the first openly gay active men's college basketball player in the United States.
"And that's one thing that everybody wants. But to get to that point, we're going to have to take steps. I want this to be a 'Who cares?' thing. And that's what he wants. ... He said he just wants to be a good football player that kind of happens to be gay. And I'm a basketball player that kind of happens to be gay.
"Being gay isn't something that defines you. But right now, in sports, it's something that's different. It shouldn't be that way, but it's something you have to overcome."
We heathen scribes are as much opportunists as we are moralists, buzzards circling a corpse. Jallen's right: This is different. Especially in sports.
But the best part, the part we're moving toward, inch by inch, is when it doesn't stick at all, when novelty and/or outrage have been replaced by the token shrug. Former Kansas great-turned-pundit/actor/producer Scot Pollard is there. Actually he's past there. Way past.
Pollard played 11 seasons in the NBA, played against Jason Collins, who also came out last spring. He couldn't shrug loudly enough.
"What's the big deal?" Pollard tells FOXSportsKansasCity.com. "Are we celebrating the fact that LeBron James is black? No, we're not. If the guy's black or white or European, are we going, 'Wow, that's an inspiration?'
"In my opinion, that's the problem -- that we're making a big deal about it. He's gay. So what? Who cares? Can we just get past it and let the guy play and let the guy win games for his team and his teammates?"
Who cares. Can he play?
Fans are getting there. Many already are. It's NFL locker rooms, though, that remain the great unknown, the litmus test. It's the clubhouse, the frat house, where boys will be boys, even as grown men. Societal rules, societal courtesies, don't apply.
"You actually end up being even more intimate with guys on your team than your friends, because you're just gone (all the time)," Pollard says.
Practice. Bus. Hotel. Arena. Bus. Hotel. Plane. Bus. Hotel. Practice. Yes, it's a place of business. But it's a place of business where the star employees shower with other star employees.
"There were some guys (in the NBA) that I assumed they were 'out,' or whom I knew maybe they were," Pollard says. "But it goes back to the statement I made earlier: As long as they're good teammates, that's all I care about."
"And I think that we were ready for this in 2014; America, specifically, has been ready for this for a little while," says Joe Barkett, Sam's agent. "And I think that it hopefully gives courage to a lot of other current athletes and professional athletes playing either in the NFL or any major sport to come out and tell their story, to say, 'Hey, this is who I am. And I'm not afraid of it.'"
You own it. That's fine. That's cool. It doesn't have to own you.
"It doesn't have to be the focal point, to make something of that -- it's not something that needs to define him or that team," Messersmith says. "It's just another thing that happened (in their lives). You don't go around saying, 'This guy's parents are divorced,' or 'This guy's girlfriend just broke up with him.'"
Sam put this at the top of the nametag. His play on the field will determine whether it stays there. The Texan came out to his teammates and coaches in August. Missouri went 12-2 and won the SEC East; week after week, players and coaches raved about internal chemistry, about a ninja-like focus of different men from different places and different backgrounds, toward one goal. Sam recorded 11 1/2 sacks, 19 tackles for loss, both tops in the SEC, and was named the league's Defensive Player of the Year.
Moreover, in the age of Facebook and Twitter, Sam's orientation somehow stayed out of the public/mainstream media narrative for five months during one of the greatest seasons in Mizzou football history. And isn't it funny how all that sure didn't seem to slow the Tigers down much on the field, if at all?
"We don't need to sensationalize somebody for being themselves," Pollard says. "We just need to get past it."
For the most part, Mizzou did. What about the rest of us.
Who cares? Can he play?
"This is huge," Messermith says. "This is HUGE. The world's honestly changing, one step at a time, and this is just another step it's got to take."
The most venomous hate, the loudest spite, comes on message boards or from Internet trollers who can hide behind anonymity and a keystroke. Because saying what you really think, with your name attached, might make you sound like a bigot.
And in 2014, being a bigot is uncool. That's progress in itself.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.