Amid the blizzard of commentary in the wake of Michael Sam’s announcement last night that he is gay, one thing has stood out to me. Sam, as he related to ESPN’s Chris Connelly during an interview last night, has endured an extraordinarily tragic life. One older bother was shot to death in front of Sam. Another disappeared in 1998. Two others are in jail. As Sam has said, it’s noteworthy that he is alive, let alone a college graduate, given the gauntlet he’s been forced to run in his life. Sam noted that, given his family history, whatever slurs or other backlash he will endure for having acknowledged his sexuality, will be child’s play. That won’t make it OK, of course. But it says something about the perspective and experience that Sam brings to his historic position.
Sports executives and media talk endlessly about “character.” It’s a concept that, under the best of circumstances, is elusive. Too often, as I’ve complained before, from the perspective of sports media, character reduces to a willingness to cooperate with the media, to give them access and quotes. Cooperative athletes are deemed to be “good guys,” hence they have good character.
Beyond that, the idea appears to be that we want to gauge how well a player handles adversity, responds to criticism, accepts his role on the team. All of these qualities contribute more to winning, in the frequently painfully simplistic and over-psychologized view of sports media, than how high a player jumps, or how fast he runs or, more fundamentally, how he actually performs on the field. But if we’re going to athletes on the basis of such “intangibles,” given what Michael Sam has been through, shouldn’t he rate as off-the-charts as far as character is concerned? Sports Illustrated ran an article last night quoting a bunch of NFL executives who questioned whether Sam had hurt his own draft status because he’d come out. I realize that they were being asked specifically about that. But I find it amazing that it wouldn’t be among the very first things that people will say about Sam that he has unbelievable, almost unfathomable character. And not because he had the courage to openly acknowledge his sexuality, though that did take great fortitude, given the reality of the world in which we live, particularly in professional sports. No, what’s just almost beyond comprehension is how Michael Sam emerged from the unimaginably violent and tragic world in which he grew up to be the kind of person he appears, by all accounts, to be.
There’s a larger context here that still eludes mainstream sports media discourse. African Americans are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as white Americans. African American males die from gun violence at two and half times the rate as Latino males and eight times the rate of white males. On average, they grow up in school systems that have dramatically fewer resources than do schools that most whites attend. It is by no means true that every black athlete grew up poor. And certainly there are white professional athletes who did. But the typical high profile black athlete has had to clear a series of obstacles that a mostly white sports media can scarcely imagine. This reality was at the core of Michael Lewis’ The Blindside, which was at pains to point out that Michael Oher likely would have ended up dead or in jail, had it not been for the Hail Mary circumstances under which he found his way to the home of a wealthy family.
In a world in which character often reduces to maintaining proper decorum as media and (often belligerent) fans define it, it’d be nice for there to be a little more acknowledgement of the reality of race in America and the extent to which it informs the world of sports. And I am not talking about the stories of a world redeemed – in which color lines have been crossed and hard fought enlightenment achieved. Michael Sam, his sexuality aside, is simply extraordinary, given what he’s had to endure in contemporary America. If character means anything, he should be a coveted prospect.
(Quick aside – hard not to be a big fan of Sam’s Missouri coach, Gary Pinkel, who’s been speaking with beautiful eloquence today about Sam, the meaning of his coming out and how Pinkel, his staff and his team handled Sam’s revelations. Simply exemplary.)