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Monday, May 12, 2014

Sam named a Ram: Lessons from the NFL

So Michael Sam was selected this week as the first openly gay player drafted by a National Football League team. The St. Louis Rams chose the Missouri linebacker very late in the draft. The scene played out on television as so many do: a telephone call, tears of elation, and the tears of a supportive significant other. So there was another first: a new player was hugged and kissed by his boyfriend -- for all to see on national television. Seems to be the month for professional sports to illuminate lessons that play out to some degree on our nation's campuses.

We have known for several years now that there have been gay football players in the NFL. But it is a big step to "come out" in an environment that is so testosterone-driven. Just look at the Jonathan Martin case for a hint of NFL locker room behavior, politics, and stereotyping. (Count on a hazing post this summer.) Perhaps this is why the media has been fascinated by a college student telling everyone he is gay as he seeks employment with a pro football team.

When I first started working in student housing some 30 years ago it was very different. We didn't know a lot then about gay people, and most of what we thought we knew was dead wrong. Then came AIDS and what was seen as a shameful lifestyle seemed, by some, to suffer deserving consequences. But we figured it out as we learned from this era. The morality question has lessened, as we know more about biology, genetics, and orientation versus preference. The Bible still offers some a strong pulpit to question, but less than ever.

Years ago we more routinely dealt with complaints from students and parents when the new roommate was revealed as homosexual. Now, there is a different vibe. Most of our students have lived in a world where being gay is less stigmatized. They have relatives, teachers, neighbors, and celebrity role models who have normalized differences among people regarding their sexuality and gender. And they figured out it isn't a big deal. History is, after all, filled with stories of sex, romance, and power. Even the biblical (and heterosexual) David had his controversies. For many, a gay roommate is not a big deal now. More important is whether or not the roommate is funny and respectful of space and food boundaries.

What is more, the most conservative campuses are likely to have some GLBTQI student organizations. How could any college not? As students grapple with their sexual morals, behaviors, decisions, and lifestyles, finding a supportive network is crucial. And members of such organizations, their allies, and the student bodies in general get it. The campus and the student culture, while still having a way to go, is progressing.

Once, several years back, here, a candidate for student government on campus made some poorly planned remarks about his gay opponent as he was campaigning at a fraternity meeting. Then, when the fraternity pushed back, it was a sign the times were changing. Seems they didn't like stereotypes - especially ones that might paint a fraternity as homophobic. Indeed, I have seen openly gay students embraced by our fraternal organizations and we are seeing similar signs on male athletic teams. In this case, the gay candidate won and shared his story widely. In the end, he was judged not on his sexuality, but his effectiveness as a student government president. And that is how it should be.

Michael Sam, similarly, gave us a very personal glimpse of who he is when he was televised after he was drafted. It was touching to see him and his boyfriend sharing emotion and affection on TV. Maybe Mitch and Cam have prepared us well. And maybe one day, scenes like this will not seem unusual as they play out. Michael Sam should have been drafted higher. As the draft drew near its end, how could you not wonder how the defensive player of the year in college football's most dominating conference could free-fall like this. People could cite his 40 yard dash times and "tweener" body-type, but look at the weaknesses outlined on some of the other mid-to-late-round choices. So we aren't there yet.

The Rams drafted a man my Packers sorely needed, and the classy Jeff Fischer, Coach of the Rams, welcomed an "outstanding" football player to the organization. Michael Sam found acceptance from most of his college teammates and friends and hopefully the older pros will offer the same. As college players try to land roster spots this fall, maybe the old pros will learn from them, and Michael Sam, and college students everywhere. It's not a big deal anymore. The sooner the better.

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