JOHN RIORDAN: Sam’s brave move brings America’s game to a new era

What makes Michael Sam so important to the gay rights movement is that he will be bringing their cause into a forbidden zone.

Michael Sam is well-placed to be the voice of a new era in the NFL.

Whether he’s successful or not will provide a fascinating glimpse into modern America — this is a career as fragile as any in sport but even more so when you’ve told Missouri and the entire world that you’re a footballer who happens to be gay.

It’s a new dawn but not merely in that clichéd figurative sense. Contrary to the fears of America’s right, the world didn’t stand still when this great story broke Sunday night. The sun managed to come up the following morning, as per usual.

A footballer tells us he’s gay and all that marks him out as special — apart from his higher-than-average footballing ability — is that he was brave enough to stand up in front of his teammates prior to his final season at the University of Missouri before bringing his truth out to a wider public.

Missouri gets a bad rap for some of its fundamentalist Christian traditions. I don’t know if I could have dreamed up many more states in which this story could have had more of a sting.

But that’s why Michael Sam is the ideal individual to charge into no man’s land. He might seem a little too neat a symbol for what will be, above all, a PR battle.

He’s not that white punter who reads about art in between booting the ball half the length of the field while looking unhealthily underweight surrounded by the man mountains around him.

Sam is a Texas-raised black man from an impoverished and tragic background. He’s loud and in your face and best of all he’s a no-nonsense defensive end, excelling at a position that is both vital to the sport’s mean mentality and a source of some of its most iconic traditions.

Quarterbacks fear all the Michael Sams which seem to constantly roll off of the deep south conveyor belt while fans worship the sacks and tackles and fumbles which he and his ilk force in the high octane battles up front.

The NFL is a big step-up for any player and whether or not this damages his career prospects is unknown. Some team officials have said it will have a negative impact on what matters so much to them: a cohesive locker room. There’s even talk already that he’s a little overrated and undersized for the professional game.

You can be sure that Sam thought deeply about his decision to take control of this narrative. A local newspaper had been aware for some time about the story as were many in the Columbia area, a university town roughly halfway between the principle Missouri urban areas of St Louis and Kansas City.

He fended them off all season and was fortunate enough to have his teammates stay loyal and not talk out of turn about his private life in a public forum.

The well-timed, well-calculated two-pronged attack through The New York Times and ESPN was designed to assure maximum exposure for what must have been an intensely private battle for so long.

A clearer picture of Sam immediately emerged and family traumas were aired to give fuller context to a story that shouldn’t be so big.

A drowned sister at the age of two, a brother shot dead, another missing presumed dead. Two other brothers serving jail time, on and off.

It all served to remind us that there might be a long bumpy road ahead for him but he’s more than equipped to deal with the cruel tragedies life throws your way when you struggle out of a tiny town at the furthest reach of southeastern Texas.

Already, the latest badly-phrased comments on the gay teammate issue have been waved around. Last week, star New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma did the whole ‘I’m not gay but’ spiel: “Imagine if he’s the guy next to me and, you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me. How am I supposed to respond?” This wasn’t hate speech but a relatively mild strain of homophobia that needs to be ironed out of society. Vilma told the Times-Picayune it was a poor illustration and apologised.

What makes Sam so important to the gay rights movement is that he will be bringing their cause into a forbidden zone. Of course, he will only be able to continue his battle if he’s good enough to compete. And if he’s good enough to compete, there’ll be open arms, support and a better understanding, enough to compensate for the inevitable mistakes which will be made along the way.

* Twitter: JohnWRiordan


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