Missouri DL Michael Sam brave in decision, now journalists need to demand the same
SOCHI, Russia — Waking up Monday to news that Missouri defensive lineman and NFL draft prospect Michael Sam publicly had announced he’s gay felt slightly surreal.
I am, after all, in Russia covering an Olympics where everybody has been warned to keep their gay to themselves. How crazy to think a 12-hour flight spans a civil-rights divide so big; one country ready to welcome its first openly gay NFL player and another where a government official asks gays "please do not touch the kids" while visiting Sochi for the Games.
Full disclosure: I am a diehard Mizzou alum and rarely have I been more proud of my university. My allegiance to Sam, before Monday, was based on sacks and Ws. Now it is on his bravery.
Many very good odes to his courage already have been written, as have analytical pieces about what he will face in the days and weeks and years ahead as he navigates being the first openly gay player in the league. I will not be so vain as to pretend another is needed from me.
This, instead, is a journalists-only take.
It is time we stop pontificating and judging athletes on their courage or lack thereof while showing none ourselves. On this Sam story, journalists need to make a pact; absolutely no anonymity granted to or off-the-record comments rebroadcast or reprinted from NFL players/coaches/execs wanting to trash him or raise questions about the feasibility.
If a player or exec wants to go all-in on Sam being a locker room distraction or the league not being ready, by all means, the floor is yours. But you have to put your name to it.
Our job as journalists is to make them come out of the closet as a bigot.
Because when we provide a human shield for bigots and cowards under the guise of journalism or needing to tell a story, we do that which we criticize. We make life harder for Sam, and anybody who might be inspired to follow him.
On moral issues like equality and basic human decency, you have to pick a side: Either you are part of the problem or part of the solution.
So when a GM or exec tries selling this narrative of Mike Sam as a locker room distraction, we have a choice. Act like this is legit and anonymously quote this B.S. Or push back and say, "Either put your name to that opinion or STFU."
Because the reality is Sam came out to his entire Mizzou team before this college football season, and this obviously did not cause problems in that locker room. They were 5-7 in the SEC a year ago and 12-2 after with Sam playing a key role and being named the SEC’s co-defensive player of the year.
What amazed me most about this story, after Sam’s courage, was that not a single one of his teammates had outed him. He was theirs and they had his back, waiting for him to be ready to tell his story and there to support him when he did. This actually is my proudest moment as a Mizzou alum because this is what sports and team is actually about, who you showed up as and how you showed up for your teammates.
This is at the very heart of the You Can Play project.
The basic premise of the foundation is, if an athlete is good enough to play, in this case in the NFL, then you can play and it does not matter if you are gay or a lesbian or pink or black or an alien.
And what is so great is this foundation came about because former Maple Leafs general manager and a big voice in USA Hockey, Brian Burke, was courageous. His son, Brendan, was gay. And when he decided to come out, his dad and family supported him because, well, that is what you do for family. They helped him tell his story publicly, Brian Burke lending his name, because they, like him, believed it would help other gay athletes.
Then Brendan died in a car crash in 2010, almost four years ago exactly this week, and his family started this foundation in his memory.
You Can Play came to Mizzou in April.
Sam used this forum to let an administrator know, "Hey that’s me" and, probably not coincidentally, he told his teammates a couple of months later. From there, he told the world.
This is how courage works. It is like fire. It spreads. Brendan Burke was brave, so his father was, so You Can Play started, so Sam felt braver, his teammates supported him and his bravery grew. Who will step up next? It is an exciting question to ask, this wondering who in the NFL is going to say, "If you can play, you can play here."
And we as journalists can no longer hang on the sideline, praising Sam for his bravery then showing none ourselves.
There is no doubt Sam and whatever team takes him faces challenges navigating everything that comes with having the first openly gay player. One of those challenges should not be fending off attacks and questions from anonymous bigots.
And that starts with journalists being brave.
And standing with Sam.