David Hoppe

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:: Michael Samís profile in courage

When the future is now

by David Hoppe

Here comes Michael Sam.

Sam will be arriving at the NFL Combine, a glorified try-out for college football players hoping to go pro, on Feb. 21. The Combine, in case you haven’t heard, is in Indianapolis.

By all accounts, Michael Sam is a gifted football player, the kind of guy who can almost certainly help a team like, say, the Colts. He was his conference’s Defense Player of the Year, a unanimous All-American.

He has also made it known that he is gay.

For the delusional lawfakers working up the street from where the Combine takes place, who think that writing anti-gay bigotry into Indiana’s constitution makes their state some kind of beacon of holy rectitude for the rest of country, Sam’s arrival may seem like one Valentine too many.

I mean here they are, trying their best to keep and promote Indiana as a place frozen in the 1950’s, sure in their hearts that this is really what all of us secretly long for — an extra helping of Leave It To Beaver, please — but no matter how hard they try, the Future keeps whistling under the Statehouse door.

Michael Sam is writing the first draft of a profile in courage the likes of which comes along but once in several generations. Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in professional baseball back in 1947 may be the only sports story that compares. Looking back, it is easy to see how on the right side of history bringing Robinson into the Bigs turned out to be. I’ll bet that if we polled Indiana’s current Statehouse Republicans, a solid majority would agree that Robinson was a hero.

But living in the here and now requires a different kind of antennae. If Sam should provide a kind of reality check for our otherwise engaged legislators, he is most certainly offering up a challenge to his would-be colleagues in professional football.

The NFL is already at a crossroads. While its sport is more popular than ever with fans, emerging information about the longterm effects of concussions on players is throwing a deep shiver into its future prospects. Every parent now has to ask him or herself whether or not it is worth it to let their children put on pads and play tackle football, a potential break point that could turn the pro game into something more akin to boxing.

Michael Sam’s revelation about his sexuality adds another, more complicated, ingredient to the NFL’s socio-cultural stew. While many players, to their credit, have insisted Sam’s performance as a teammate is all that matters, anonymous team executives have seemed less than enthused about bringing Sam into their locker rooms.

The onus is on the NFL. Can it provide a workplace where people can be themselves and be judged on their performance — or not?

Some NFL commentators have praised Sam’s honesty, but worried publicly that “it’s not time yet.” They should stop by the Statehouse when they’re here for the Combine. They’d fit right in.