Yes, Michael Sam is a distraction — from our bullshit ideas of masculinity

michael sam

Future Hall of Fame football coach Tony Dungy said he wouldn’t have drafted Michael Sam, the first openly gay player to be taken in the NFL draft, because he “wouldn’t want to deal with all of it.” He’d be a distraction, according to Dungy.

I get where he’s coming from. Seriously. What with all the media attention Sam is going to get. All the cameras following him around. Think of how fans of the team would constantly try to get his attention, and fans from opposing teams would hate him, and people who don’t even follow sports would form opinions of him without knowing him. He’ll constantly be doing interviews and commercials and being asked to participate in community service projects.

BECAUSE ALL OF THAT IS SO INCREDIBLY FOREIGN TO NFL FOOTBALL.

We could get into a whole discussion about how disappointing it is that Dungy, the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl, would take this stance, given that it’s the same excuse that was trotted out against racial integration of sports. We can talk about how he threw his support behind Michael Vick, after Vick was released from prison for dogfighting, and how hypocritical this is considering how much of a “distraction” Vick was projected to be. And we can talk at length about the number of abusers, alleged rapists and murderers the NFL has coddled over the years because… Because. Exactly.

We can have any of those conversations. But right now let’s talk about Michael Sam.

Michael Sam is gay. Michael Sam plays football. Michael Sam was drafted into the NFL. To borrow a phrase from Vice President Joe Biden: It’s a big fucking deal.

And it’s a big fucking deal precisely because of how Sam causes people to freak out. He make us ask questions like “is the NFL ready for an openly gay player?” and “how will his teammates react?” and “will he be a distraction?” And all this while the sports world keeps saying “what really matters, at the end of the day, is how he plays the game.”

Obviously that’s not all that matters or we wouldn’t have to ask any of the other questions.

As a football-loving nation, we’re worried. Not about Michael Sam’s well-being. We couldn’t give less than a shit about that. We’re worried about what Sam’s existence says about us. Who are we, now that a gay man is playing our most masculine sport, while being so totally, openly gay???

We are… a nation of homophobes, that’s who we are. We are a nation of people who can’t conceive of the idea that a man who kisses his boyfriend after one of the biggest achievements in his life will also entertain us by inflicting brain damage on his opponents. Those two images of masculinity don’t jive in our collective imagination. That flies in the face of our conception of manliness.

Yet, here he is. Michael Sam. Attempting to do just that. Why? Why would he subject the rest of us to it? Why not just keep it under wraps? Why not just entertain us and let us believe that only “manly” men who like to hit their wives and girlfriends and sexual assault strangers are the real titans of masculinity? WHY IS MICHAEL SAM TRYING TO FORCE US TO OPEN OUR MINDS?????

Because history. Because change. Because it has to start somewhere.

I’m not much into watching football anymore these days. With all that we know about brain injuries and the long term effects on the player’s health, it’s difficult to still tune in. But if football is where many Americans are getting their ideas about masculinity, and if Michael Sam can challenge the viewing public to think more critically about who and what makes a man, then I say go forth and tackle everyone on the field until the concussion sets in.

Distract us all.

MychalMychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute.

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