by John Furgele
Michael Sam has put down the gauntlet. By announcing that he is gay and a would be professional football player, he is attempting to change the landscape that is professional football and indeed, professional sports. You may give Jason Collins credit for being the first player to come out, but I don’t because Collins did it at the end of last season, knowing his career was more than likely over and he never did enter a locker room as an openly gay player.
Sam didn’t wait that long, in fact, he came out before he entered the professional ranks. He did inform his teammates at the University of Missouri before the 2013 season, and the Tigers were a pleasant surprise, going 12-2 with a berth in the SEC Championship Game and a Cotton Bowl victory. Give major credit to those teammates; they didn’t care and more impressively, they didn’t leak it out to anybody.
For the most part, in today’s society, most are fine with gay people. In fact, in today’s high schools and colleges, most young adults don’t give one’s sexuality a second thought. And, most of today’s athletes are okay with gay people, gay rights and all things in between. That said, the locker room is much different than the office. And, having grown men parading around naked is not the reason why it is such. I don’t believe players will be worried about having Sam “checking them out” as they head to the showers. But, as the Incognito-Martin fiasco tells us, it’s what is said in the locker room that could prove problematic.
Guys like to joke and clown around. They make fun of your mother, your sister, your girlfriend and your wife. When I grew up in the 1980s, the word “fag,” meant jerk. If your buddy was annoying you, it was common to say, “stop being a ‘fag’ and leave me alone.” Jeremy Shockey said as much a few years ago when he used the term. He was blasted for it, but I understood it. In the locker room, that word is still used, so are other “rough” terms that reference both male and female anatomy. I apologize for being blunt here, but that’s the truth, the reality and today, the trend is to hide from reality. Most of the guys who use those terms in the locker room are clowning around. They don’t mean any harm saying them; it’s just part of the bravado that is the modern day sports locker room.
If Sam is on your team, is that going to stop? Are players going to stop calling each other fags because Sam is walking around the coveted locker room? The players really don’t care about Sam. Once practice ends, everybody goes and does their own thing. Some go home to their families; some go out on the town, while others do other things. The fear among the players is not Sam; it’s the sanctity of the locker room, which for years was the only place where a player didn’t have to be politically correct. Now, if Sam is in the locker room, what happens now?
In 1965 Charles de Gaulle said of presidential opponent Francois Mitterand: “when you go to confession, it’s to get rid of the devil, but if the devil is in the confessional that changes everything.” Sam is not the devil, nor his homosexuality, but having him in a locker room does change everything, and that is something that will make the players concerned. They’re likely going to keep using those above mentioned words and it will be up to Sam to be able to process that they are not reflective of him and his sexuality.
Sam is going to be a pioneer here. He will have to go through the ordeal. If he sacks the quarterback, makes important tackles and helps is team win, all will be good. Sports have always been ahead of its time with regard to social issues. They integrated long before society did because winning conquers all. The player that uses the word fag in the locker room will likely be the same player slapping him on the butt after he makes a big tackle on third and one. They might even be best friends on the team. What Sam will have to do is compartmentalize. Can he hear the words and know that it’s nothing more than locker room fodder, or will he be offended to the point that Jonathan Martin was with the Miami Dolphins.
Sam has already tacked the hard part by announcing that he is gay. I still hope for the day where such an announcement won’t be necessary. If Sam can adapt and accept the locker room culture, he should be fine. Once again, the word fag means different things on the street and in the locker room and if Sam realizes this, he and his teammates will be fine. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe those words won’t be said if Sam is on the team, but they’ve been said for decades and players want and need to be comfortable in that setting. For the player, the locker room is where they have to be the most relaxed because the sport is hard enough.