In his new Visa spot, Sam defiantly asks fans to “Judge me for what I do on the field.” But that very message acknowledges that his place in sports will always be defined both on and off it. Like other public figures, he’ll be watched and scrutinized for his private life and his relationships. That kiss – and the room full of supporters – invited the world to see Michael Sam as he is, both as a player and a man. He’s not going to play it down for the comfort of anybody else – and this is important. It’s important because it’s the answer to everybody who argues that they don’t have a problem with gay people, but you know, they just prefer them not to be quite so “open and avowed” about it.
While that kiss might not do anything to open the hearts of the crazy YouTube ranters, it is a big step toward tolerance and equality. So if you’ve somehow managed to successfully avert your eyes for too long, or think that gay people are fine as long as they’re not being gay in front of you, go ahead and look. It’s not scary or strange. This is love. This is celebration. This is normal.
Here’s what that embrace and kiss meant to me. It meant that Sam is not afraid, and neither is Vito, his boyfriend. There are no double standards here or special exceptions. If Sam were with a girlfriend, the scene would be utterly banal, if still beautiful. It helps that they are so young – because they are not yet old enough to have their minds clogged with qualifications, warnings, worries. They just respond as two people in love. In that moment, the hug matters more than the kiss; and the faces more than the hug. Look at Vito in the video as he waits for and absorbs the news. The anxiety, the trepidation, the concern for his partner: this is what love looks like.
Then there is the interracial aspect.
The love between a black man and a white man punches a hole through the wall of racism, just as the love of a black man and a white woman or a white man and a black woman. And it punches it with love. There is way too much embedded racism in the gay community, way too much lingering homophobia among African-Americans, and way too much sexual-racial segregation all around. Breaking these impulses down is the work of culture, not law, and as such, it’s life that helps move us forward, not politics. By showing us a simple, obvious love affair across race and within gender, Vito and Michael strip us down to a deeper human identity.
It helps too that this was not a staged kiss. It was incidental to something else: a rite of passage for a football player. And that’s the best way to glimpse love – in passing. It’s always more authentic that way. And it shows too, I think, that it’s not quite right to say that love knows no boundaries. There are boundaries everywhere – class, race, religion, gender, language, geography and on and on. And they are real and daunting at times. But love is uniquely capable of piercing those boundaries in a fundamental way. When it does so, even once, in front of all of us, it creates just a little more breathing space for more people to be more fully human, to be more fully themselves. And I think this is increasingly not lost on straight people. They see that the gay rights movement is not about gays as such, but about humanity. Not just gay potential – but our collective human potential.
Meanwhile, Nate Silver admits he was wrong to assume that Michael Sam “would be chosen by a team like the Patriots or the Seahawks or the San Francisco 49ers that play in an urban area especially tolerant toward gay people.” Why he thinks “St. Louis was probably the best fit all along”:
Interest in the Tigers [the University of Missouri football team, which Sam played on,] is about 50 times higher in Missouri than in the rest of the country, according to the number of Google searches. In other words, a higher percentage of people in St. Louis and elsewhere in Missouri will know of Sam as a football player and not just as a gay athlete. Here’s hoping that helps him to concentrate on what he does best.
Ian Crouch points out that Sam’s “spot on the Rams is far from assured”:
Seventh-round picks are never locks to make the final roster, and it appears that Sam will be competing for a place on special teams, rather than as an everyday starter. In February, when he came out, Sam had been projected as somewhere near a third-round pick. But there were concerns that he was too small to be lineman in the pros, and his performance at the draft combine left scouts doubtful of his ability to play the smaller position of linebacker, which requires speed as well as strength. His new coach, Jeff Fisher, spoke about his team’s commitment to fair treatment, but was plain about Sam’s prospects: “It’s not going to be easy. We’re too deep at defensive end. But he deserves a chance.”
Robert Silverman agrees that this will be a challenge:
He’s going to have to carve out a roster spot on what is generally considered the best defensive line in pro football, featuring stars Robert Quinn and Chris Long, an emerging talent in Michael Brookers, and fellow Rams draftee, Aaron Donald, the 13th player chosen in the 1st round.
Jazz Shaw adds that “if this guy were any other regular player coming out of the college ranks, nobody would exactly faint from shock if he wound up without a team on opening day this fall.” He worries about the reaction should that happen:
Like many, many other young hopefuls, the chance is not only real but fairly high that he might not make the cut and the Rams will have to turn him loose to free agency, where his prospects may not look much better. But now he’s captured media lightning in a bottle. If he is cut, will the immediate howls begin across the small screen Left side blogs, claiming that the Rams’ ownership must all be hateful homophobes? Will boycotts be organized? Will this be held up from the highest ramparts as yet another example of the heteronormative patriarchy keeping the gay man down?
Or will people understand that the Rams are there to try to win another Superbowl and they can’t afford even one weak link in the chain?
Meanwhile, Sam jerseys are selling like hotcakes:
Orders for Michael Sam’s St. Louis Rams jerseys were the second-highest of any NFL rookie drafted this weekend. … “This is unprecedented for a Day 3 pick, let alone a seventh round pick, to crack the top five rookies sold following Draft weekend,” said NFL spokesperson Joanna Hunter.