Change can come sealed with a kiss

When I hear somebody saying politics and sport should never mix I often wonder what planet they are dialling in from.

Change can come sealed with a kiss

It must be great there, never having to think or having to challenge yourself.

Usually what they are saying is politics shouldn’t interfere with their sport. Little considerations like human decency play no part if you are watching your team and drinking your beers.

Those people usually end up on the wrong side of history. For instance, since Nelson Mandela put on a South Africa rugby jersey in that amazing act of forgiveness you don’t hear so many people arguing it was grand so many rugby teams legitimised apartheid by playing there in the era of segregation.

Mandela took his politics and mixed it with his sport and killed the argument stone dead.

Last weekend Michael Sam kissed his boyfriend Vito Cammisano. It was covered on American TV. In fact Michael kissed Vito many times. Why wouldn’t he? Michael Sam had just been drafted to the NFL. He had just become the first openly gay player to take that step. He had just killed a lot of arguments stone dead.

Not just that. He had done so after switching position after performing poorly at the NFL combines in February. He had made the NFL having grown up poor in small town Texas. He had an older brother who was shot dead while breaking and entering. He has two more brothers in Galveston County Jail. The journey he has taken tells you a lot about the sort of heart he must have.

As the NFL draft wound up his kiss was covered on US TV. Not a gay kiss. A kiss. Full stop. It was the perfect thing to do. The power of what he has achieved expressed in a moment of affection. The symbolism there in a black NFL player kissing a white man was powerful. This is possible. This is our time to live in. Now let’s move on.

There were some good ole boys sitting on porches swigging their beers who reached for their Bibles and called for damnation. There were a couple of sports presenters who don’t mind the strange overlap which parts of the NFL has with parts of the criminal world but who felt that a kiss was an attention-seeking gimmick which went too far.

Dinosaurs will always be part of the lesson of where we have come from but they don’t matter. What matters is how Mike Sam’s picture plays to young people who suspect the greatest lie the world ever told them was that they could be anything they chose to be. Sometimes, if you have the guts, the imagination, the talent and the self-awareness you can actually break out of the cuffs which class, colour, orientation, lack of opportunity and other people’s ignorance or jealousy place you in. Sometimes a fella like Mike Sam comes along and does a large part of that work for you.

When the bellyache brigade whine about politics and sport and attention seeking and political correctness gone mad they ignore the incredible power of sport to change things.

In Europe, where people still throw bananas at black players and where as recently as last year Robbie Rogers felt afraid to play football for Leeds United as an openly gay player, we like to think of American sport in the way that we sometimes think of America generally. Loud and vulgar. Take what you like and disregard the rest. Why are we so smug?

We have missed out on a tradition of great and brave sporting heroes who have shaped the world around them.

Jack Johnson was from the same neck of the Texas woods as Mike Sam comes from. Over 100 years ago he became the first black heavyweight champion and decided that he was never going to bend the knee to the white man. When he fought Jim Jeffries in Reno, Nevada the brass band is said to have played ‘All Coons Look The Same To Me’ as Johnson made his entrance. When Jeffries lost American cities turned themselves into a necklace of race riots led by scared whites.

Johnson took all the racist sentiment and turned it on its head. He taunted and humiliated Jeffries. He rubbed white America’s nose in his success. He married white women and he “carried on” with white women.

He took every piece of lazy prejudice and stomped on it. People still argue as to whether he did more harm than good by behaving in the way that so many white sporting stars have behaved since then. He had the guts though, to take a can of petrol and set the whole sport and politics argument on fire.

Jackie Robinson was a different kind of character. He broke the racial barrier in baseball. He took that burden onto his own shoulders and just by being so good at what he did he defied everything that was thrown at him. He had a long, hard and lonely journey in his early years playing big league baseball. Players and fans abused and intimidated him. Often he couldn’t travel or eat with his white team-mates. Or stay in the same hotel. By the time he was finished a black team-mate who had begun his journey a few years later summed up Jackie Robinson’s achievements in a simple way: “I’m just another guy who plays baseball.” For a black guy to say that before Jackie Robinson came along was unthinkable.

Different sports moved at different speeds. Last week as the St Louis Rams were being clapped on the back for being the first NFL franchise to draft an openly gay player. They were being a bit quiet about the fact that they were also the first modern NFL team to break the colour barrier. The fact is that when the franchise was based in Los Angeles they wanted to use the publicly owned LA Coliseum for home games.

They couldn’t do that while staying racially segregated. With a black journalist shaming them every day in the newspaper they hired a black player, Kenny Washington, who had been the outstanding colleges player in the USA back in 1939. This was 1946 now and Washington was in his late 20s. The Rams also hired the second black player in modern NFL history. When they were sending Washington off to the “black part of town” to a hotel which would take people of his colour they needed a room-mate to take the spare bed.

He chose his college team-mate Woody Strode. The pair of them are two unsung heroes of American sport and American history. You can spot Woody Strode in movies like Spartacus if you watch carefully. He became an actor after football.

They are in good company.

Ali is still an inspiration. John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s raised fists on the Olympic podium were part of a line of defiance going back to Jessie Owens. Not many non-Americans have heard of Roberto Clemente, the Latin American baseball player who objected initially to American sportswriters trying to whiten him up by referring to him as Bobby or Bob. Clemente became a pioneer for Latin American athletes before he was killed in an airplane flying relief supplies to Nicaragua after an earthquake in 1972.

High fives to that great line of heroes (and we could throw in Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Arthur Ashe and others who brought more than just brilliance to changing the world they lived in).

And a high five to Glenn Burke, the man who invented the high five.

Glenn Burke was probably the first baseball player to come out as a gay man to his team-mates.

On the last day of the regular baseball season back in 1977, Glenn Burke’s team-mate Dusty Baker hit a home run making the LA Dodgers the first team in history to have four players in a season hit more than 30 home runs. The Dodgers were also heading to the play-offs.

Glenn Burke, waiting on Baker to round the bases, put his hand over his head arcing it back to greet his friend in celebration at home base. Baker responded the same way as he approached and they smacked palms.

When Glenn Burke retired from baseball he was a hero to the gay community and he went to live in the Castro district of San Francisco.

In his honour the community there adopted the high five as a symbol of pride and identification.

The high five just grew to become a part of our culture which nobody ever even thinks about today.

Mike Sam and that kiss planted the latest seeds which will grow to change and expand our consciousness. Glenn Burke is watching from some place, grinning with his open palm above his head waiting for the high five. I hope he gets a kiss instead.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine. Sport. Politics. People live in one another’s shelter. Mike Sam just provided a whole lot more...

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