Commentary: Michael Sam Now Officially an NFL Barrier-Breaker

Rams and the rest of the NFL must prove they are accepting of an openly gay player.

Posted: 05/12/2014 02:15 PM EDT
Commentary: Michael Sam Now Officially an NFL Barrier-Breaker

It was a touching scene, one I suspect, however, that some members of the St. Louis Rams might not have wanted to see. It is viral now … Michael Sam, an openly gay Black football player, kissing another man Saturday in celebration of his selection in the seventh round of the NFL Draft.

Those Rams saw Sam, tears flowing, in a televised display of affection that, because of the callous camera work of ESPN, lasted a lot longer than some of them surely found comfortable.

“Michael Sam rejoicing and kissing on national TV,” SI.com sportswriter Peter King tweeted a short while later. “This is a great moment for the country.”

King was right, but a kiss isn’t necessarily just a kiss.

No question that Sam, 24, had a right to bask in the moment. So did the man who kissed him. If we, as a people, are going to wipe away homophobia, we must be grateful for those celebratory moments like Sam’s. But would ESPN have kept its cameras focused on an athlete and his girlfriend for as long as it did on Michael Sam?

The answer is no. It would have returned to its New York studio and let the host and the experts fill in the details. Instead, ESPN played the voyeur, and is that a part the network ought to play in a story like Sam’s?

The network fawned over his selection as if he would be a difference-maker on the field, and while his courage for coming out of the closet has made Sam a cultural story worth telling, no one knows yet if Sam’s contribution to the Rams will be anything more than symbolic.

He’s a last-round pick. He’s an undersized defensive player who lacks the speed (4.9 seconds in the 40) that would have earned him a higher selection. As SEC Defensive Player of the Year, his college credentials made him worth drafting, but football fans know last-round picks aren’t penciled in as starters for their rookie seasons.

Despite all the tweets from current and former Rams congratulating him, Sam remains a question mark in terms of even making the final roster. Talent aside, nobody will be eager to discuss the biggest issue of all: How supportive will his Rams teammates be?

And what might his teammates — not all of them were likely standing up to applaud his selection — think of Sam’s kissing another man?

His selection was historic, no doubt there. But history has its ugliness, as evidenced by the hatred Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby faced when integrating Major League Baseball in 1947. Neither man found ready acceptance, not just from fans and other ballplayers but from his own teammates.

Nor will Michael Sam. He is breaking a barrier at a different time in U.S. history, and it is a barrier that needed breaking.

He will have achieved little, though, if he doesn’t make the Rams roster, and he and the rest of America will know quickly how an openly gay man fits in the testosterone-fueled boys club of an NFL locker room.

For months, his acceptance has been taken for granted. Now, the reality of it all sets in. Will his Rams teammates welcome him? Or will Michael Sam become a mere footnote in NFL history, remembered more for the overly long moment the ESPN cameras gave him than for the real contribution he made on the football field?

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Darron Cummings/AP Photo, File)

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