This is a landmark moment in our lives, of course, a time when two gay men circumvent a history of Neanderthal attitudes in sports and publicly enter the worlds of pro football and basketball. Saturday in Indianapolis, at the NFL combine, we heard an impending draftee ask to be viewed as “Michael Sam, the football player, instead of Michael Sam, the gay football player.” Sunday night in Los Angeles, we watched Jason Collins enter a game for the Brooklyn Nets to a warm ovation, becoming the NBA’s first openly gay player.
“Life is so much better for me. I don’t have to hide who I am. Just be my normal self,” said Collins, at a news conference so crowded that Staples Center officials had to add another exit per the city fire code. “The past 10 months (since he first announced he was gay) have been incredible. A lot of really cool experiences, learning a lot, making new friends and hearing peoples’ stories. Overall, it’s been really positive.”
When athletes exhibit the courage to come out in America, dress in a locker room with straight teammates and bear the insensitive burden of a profession that can be cruel to the ears, it is progress. And it will lead to a day, let’s hope, when a player’s sexuality doesn’t dominate a news cycle and isn’t relevant in the national sports conversation.
But we are not there yet.
Not even close.
Collins and Sam are trial balloons, I’m afraid, test tubes in a social laboratory that remains delicate, complex and vulnerable to discord. It was only 10 days ago, remember, when a 144-page report was issued detailing an NFL-ordered investigation of Richie Incognito, the locker-room ringleader of a Miami bullying group that tormented teammate Jonathan Martin and other Dolphins personnel with slurs — including relentless homophobic comments. You are badly mistaken if you think Incognito is an isolated rogue. There are many more cavemen like him in every pro league, and just because we’re hearing mostly company-line approval in athletes’ public comments about Collins and Sam and Major League Soccer’s Robbie Rogers doesn’t mean a backlash isn’t bubbling beneath the surface. With lucrative contracts and public images at stake, don’t expect anything but supportive comments for gay athletes, particularly from big names.
Those would include Collins’ new teammates, such as respected league-wide figures Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Deron Williams.
“It’s 2014,” Williams said. “Michael Sam just came out, and his teammates (at the University of Missouri) welcomed him, and they’re in college. It’s time for the NBA, as well.”
“Great competitor, plays team basketball, is for the team, great guy, great character,” Garnett said. “I think it’s important that anybody who has the capabilities and skill level (gets) a chance to (do) something he’s great at. I think it would be bias, and in a sense, racist, if you keep that opportunity from a person.”
Said Miami Heat star Chris Bosh, per ESPN: “It’s great for him to be able to express himself and get those feelings off his chest and … to be able to get a job in the NBA, especially after that has kind of a been a taboo subject for pretty much ever.”
Said Jeremy Lin, the NBA’s first Asian American player, per ESPN: “I think it’s definitely a big step. The game is evolving. You see a lot of different people breaking barriers in a lot of different ways. This is just another one of those.”
Though the Clippers chose the younger Davis, a more dangerous and active scorer and rebounder, coach Doc Rivers also was pleased. “Jason and I have texted and talked on the phone. I’m very happy for him, just really for the basketball part,” Rivers said. “The other stuff is for everything else but just the basketball part. He’s a worker, he’s a good guy and it’s always nice having good guys in the league. And it’s a perfect place with Kevin and Paul. He was with us in Boston so they know what he can do defensively.”
Collins was eager to play basketball, nothing more. He will wear No. 98 for the Nets, a tribute to Matthew Shepard, the college student who died in a 1998 hate crime. “Right now, I’m focused on trying to learn the plays, learn the coverages and follow the game plan assignment I don’t really have time to think about history,” he said. “Just focus on the job tonight. Sometimes in life something happens and there’s an opportunit. I’m very thankful for this opportunity. That’s why I work so hard, why I train the way I do so that when I do have an opportunity physically I’m not worried about my conditioning or cardio or anything along those lines.
“Guys know what to expect from me. They’re not like ‘he’s magically gonna have a 40-inch vertical and shoot 3s.’ My game has been pretty consistent. I’m a defensive player first, and that’s what I pride myself on. Now it’s just a matter of getting comfortable with coverages and assignments.”
Basketball is all this should be about. The doubters are out there, though, along with morons such as the Chicago Bulls’ Joakim Noah, who not long ago shouted, “F— you, f—-t” at a fan in Miami during a playoff game. The issue is whether dissenters and/or ignorami still have the audacity to speak out, as New York Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas did thoughtfully about Sam.
“I think society is ready for it and America’s ready for it, but I don’t think the NFL is,” Thomas told ESPN.com. “As a player, all you want to know is if he can play. That’s on the field. But in the locker room, it’s different. There’s a lot of talk and joking around, and some guys walk around completely naked all the time, and they might not want to do that anymore. When you add that situation to the mix, I think it’s going to make some people uncomfortable. Things are changing, and certain change is inevitable. We have to look at him like a brother and can’t treat him any different. But that could be difficult for some people, just the way our locker rooms work.”
Has anyone inside the league hierarchies even thought about the locker-room issue? How we really should be reconfiguring the places where athletes dress, a dated prototype out of 1950, when society is moving pretty quickly in 2014? As it is, gay issues aside, it’s archaic to expect a dozen men to dress together in the smallish confines of a basketball locker room, or four dozen men to dress together in the larger space of a football locker room. Isn’t it time to spend millions — every league is loaded with revenues — and give each player his own daily mini-suite where he can have privacy, shower by himself, dress, then meet the media in an adjoining large room with his teammates?
That way, teams can avoid an uncomfortable circus in which media people focus on how Collins and Sam interact in a locker room where people are removing their clothes. Do YOU dress for work in front of others? Why should pro athletes? And why feed the media frenzy by having gay athletes mix with straight athletes? That isn’t fair to any of them, Collins and Kim included.
But at least we’ve reached a point where a team signs a gay athlete because he is worthy of being on a team. Such is the significance of Collins, who agreed to a 10-day contract with a Nets team that needs a defensive presence in the paint. When he came out last spring, there was no assurance that any team would sign an aging journeyman. And to the credit of the outgoing NBA commissioner, David Stern, and his successor, Adam Silver, no league pressure was placed on teams to sign Collins. This was simply — and refreshingly — a basketball move. When the Nets traded forward Reggie Evans to Sacramento last week, and potential replacement Glen Davis decided to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers, bringing back Collins because the obvious option.
“The decision to sign Jason was a basketball decision,” Nets general manager Billy King said. “We needed to increase our depth inside, and with his experience and size, we felt he was the right choice for a 10-day contract.”
Said Silver: “Jason told us his goal was to earn another contract with an NBA team. Today, I want to commend him on achieving his goal. I know everyone in the NBA family is excited for him and proud that our league fosters an inclusive and respectful environment.”
Collins could be gone by early March or, if extended, be a cog for the Nets in the playoffs. Whatever. The barrier is gone now, and the bigger experiment begins: How many other gay athletes will follow his lead go public, and how will this surge be accepted in sports? While attitudes have become considerably more enlightened in the last generation, the doubters and haters are out there. I am more concerned about Sam, as a soon-to-be NFL rookie, than Collins, a likeable veteran who has been in the league a dozen years. Even if the haters keep their protests to themselves, they will be ready to make life hell for Sam whether he’s in their locker room or playing for an opposing team.
What should be viewed as a forward-thinking adventure in human relations, an important step of acceptance in a traditional machismo culture, realistically is a tenuous walk over hot coals into the unknown. “The attention on him is going to bring attention to the team — unwanted attention, questions that the players, the coaches, the whole organization is going to have to answer — and that’s a lot for one player to carry by himself,” Thomas said. “You just look at what happened this year with the Miami Dolphins’ situation. That became something we were being asked about every day in our locker room, and it wasn’t even our team. And they’re the kinds of questions where you have to think carefully about how you phrase things.”
Two respected NFL executives don’t anticipate problems. But then, are they also being politically correct? Said Denver Bronocs boss John Elway: “Having spent 16 years in an NFL locker room (as a player), the bottom line is that it’s about treating others with respect and earning that respect. By all indications, it appears Michael has done just that throughout his football career.”
“He’s been a good player, he’s been in the locker room, it’s what you, the media, what are y’all going to do with him,” Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. “Once he gets in, and he can rush the quarterback, get the quarterback on the ground and make tackles, he’s going to be a good teammate. The biggest thing is how the media is going to deal with it. This is something that is new to the league and we all will have to adapt to it. What I was talking about, I think our locker room has had the tendency to adapt to things a lot smoother than maybe the media does.”
During a highly attended news conference, Sam was impressive in that he grasped the obstacles ahead. “Heck yeah, I wish you guys would tell me, `Michael Sam, how’s football going?’ I would love for you to ask me that question, but it is what it is.”
What if he faces an Incognito-type abuser? “If someone wants to call me a name, I will have a conversation with that guys and hopefully it won’t lead to nothing else,” Sam said.
Would he be comfortable if the Dolphins drafted him? “I would be excited to be a part of that organization,” Sam said. “I’m not afraid about going into that environment. I know how to handle myself, I know how to communicate with my teammates, I know how to communicate with coaches and whoever I need to communicate with.”
Sam’s case will be helped if he performs well at the combine. It is not a certainty that he will make an NFL roster, and concerns about his lack of height — he is undersized as a pass-rusher at 6-1 and has little outside-linebacker experience — could cause trepidation among teams weary of disproportionate media attention. Of his 11.5 sacks last year, nine came in three games. Where was he the rest of the season?
“I am not a GM, I do not have control over my draft status,” Sam said. “All I can control is preparing myself to get the best scores out there. … I’m a pass rusher. If you put me in a situation to get the quarterback, I’m going to get the quarterback. Whoever the coaches, the GMs, this league is a passing league, I like to believe in myself as a good pass rusher.”
He wore a “Stand With Sam” button, given to him by a “very kind lady” during a recent basketball game on the University of Missouri campus. “I hope all you guys stand with Sam,” he said. “Please do.”
“My message,” Jason Collins said, “is just to be your true authentic self.”
A project begins.