Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Michael Sam: Barriers, Labels, and "Firsts"...

On September 16th, 1906, Charles Follis became the first black professional football player - EVER. There
have been loads of sporting world "firsts", and in the 2014 NFL Draft, another barrier was sundered for all time. I don't mean to equate Michael Sam - the first openly gay football player to earn his way into the NFL - to that of the racial mountains African Americans have to climb. But some of you will think I am, and more than likely take exception to it. If so, please accept my apologies in advance. My aim is to extol a moment - any moment - when a barrier to equal opportunity for everyone is crossed off the long list of biases that still exist...

The NFL crossed the racial barrier in 1920, when Fritz Pollard signed with the short lived Akron Pros as a player, then first black head coach. In the NBA, the first "non-white" player was Wataru Matsaka (1947, the same year Jackie Robinson broke another barrier in baseball), predating the first black player - Chuck Cooper - who didn't enter the league until 1950.

You see, there is something absolutely awesome about "firsts". At times, they confound prejudgments, and smash outdated mindsets. I've been know to quote Soren Kierkegaard's: "Once you label me, you negate me..." This statement is more than true, and it faces each of us on an almost daily basis. Someone says this about another, it transposes itself into a mark that's hard to wash off. We impose penalties of time to heal on the suspect, and unsuspecting, alike; with little regard to effect.

One of the best observations I've read, was quoted by Harald Høffding, who kind of mauled the translation of Kierkegaard's thoughts, but it fits my current mind: "We live forward, but we understand backward..." For all the thundering footsteps mankind takes forward, there's this undeniable tendency to run back to opinion pre-sets passed down from generation to generation.

In a way, "firsts" are the dawn of a new "Yin" to go with the offshoot of a new Yang - formed by the very human response to find equilibrium as change whirls around us. We take viewpoints which are easy at times, and hard the next. But shying away from a shift in what has been perceived before isn't always easy. Culture and ingrained societal norms are as different as grains of sand, but are often set in a stubbornness-stone. Chipping away takes time, but it takes willingness too.

Today, Michael Sam is a happy young man, but he's also relying on us to wish him well along his NFL way. This is right, and true, and it's what St. Louis Rams fans will do. They'll get to field the wanton idiocy slung their way by those living in their personal, shallow, self-absorbed predispositions and hatred. But the truly magical thing about an NFL team, is the way their fans rally around them. They protect their favorite team's players like a mother Bear protects her cubs. Michael Sam will be given every chance to succeed, because he's made it through the door of an NFL that prides itself on how a player can rise from no where to being a star. Just ask guys like New England's Tom Brady, or Houston's Arian Foster. Both of these current NFL stars were told who they were, wasn't enough to succeed in the NFL. But they proved everyone wrong, simply because the game of football is about the right pieces coming together to form a winning team. Black, white, Hispanic, Samoan, it doesn't matter, and neither will Michael Sam being gay.

It's my greatest hope the only label I see being applied to Michael Sam is "great player". Make no mistake, he'll have to earn his way onto a St. Louis Rams roster already packed with defensive stars. There's going to be pressure on this young man from outside, and in a way it's both sad, and fair. You see, to be a "First", you have to step forward. You have to take the unseen stares of those who'll doubt you, and rise above every challenge. Only then, can you make a mark on history, and in this case, open a road for others to follow. To me, this isn't about Michael Sam being gay. It's about someone stepping up to inspire others to do amazing things. It's for the young girl, who dreams of throwing a fastball in Major League Baseball, or the wounded soldier overcoming his injuries to climb Mount Everest. It's about life, and it being your's to live as you choose...