SOCHI, Russia -- Anyone can be a pioneer in the sheltering comfort of history. Buck O’Neil, the great Negro Leagues player and manager, would smile because people always rushed up to say that they wish they could have stood behind Jackie Robinson in his fight to integrate baseball. They would have fought for him. Ol’ Buck would nod.
“I know you would,” he would say, because that was Buck O’Neil, and because he loved people. But, of course, he knew better than anyone that it was so much more complicated than that. Now, Jackie Robinson is a hero. Now, Jackie Robinson is at the heart of a great American story. Now, he is taught at schools and celebrated on postage stamps, and he is the subject of a big Hollywood movie. Now, his cause is seen not only as just but as unmistakable.
It wasn’t like that in 1947.
One thing many people miss about that time -- the most powerful enemies of integration were not the red-faced extremists and racists who turned on fire hoses and lined the streets while shouting at black children trying to go to school. No, the real battle was being waged at the dinner tables of middle-class families, in the thoughtful conversation of universities and office buildings, in swing-set talks on the playground. There, Jackie Robinson’s cause was not viewed as unmistakable. There, the counter arguments sounded so reasonable.
The arguments: Black players, because of their backgrounds, cannot handle the intensity of Major League Baseball (“It’s not their fault!” the more progressive would add). They don’t have the attitude or intelligence to play the game at the highest level. Some racist white teammates, you see, will not accept a black player. Team chemistry, always so fragile, will be shattered. Yes, of course, it would be wonderful if everyone was treated equally; it’s something we should all strive for, but the world is a harsh place, the world does not have only open-minded people, the world is not such a nirvana yet. And black players have their own Negro Leagues already.
Soon, though, people told each other.
Later, though, people said.
Sixty-seven years later, it’s so blindingly easy to see through those infuriatingly thin arguments. African Americans lack the intelligence? White teammates would never accept them? We would never have fallen for such insanity. We would never have allowed such nonsense.
Anyone can be a pioneer in the sheltering comfort of history.
Sunday, an All-American football player from the University of Missouri named Michael Sam announced he was gay. The fact he made this announcement just weeks before the NFL draft is groundbreaking and unprecedented. Almost all of the people in mainstream American sports who came out did so from a different position -- after their career had finished or at the end or (in the extraordinary case of Martina Navratilova) at the height of their success.
For Sam, though, this is just the beginning. Before the beginning, even. It seems that he did not want to announce it. He had been content living his life in relative privacy -- he had come out to his teammates at Missouri, and his friends knew, and that was enough. But as the NFL draft approached, he came to realize just how many people knew (one NFL player personnel director estimated to SI’s Peter King that 29 or 30 of the 32 NFL teams knew). And he worried (not unreasonably) that in today’s media hailstorm, he could be outed.
“I want to own my own truth,” he told ESPN.
That much of America’s attention these days is focused here on Russia, with its disgraceful anti-LGBT laws, is telling. Because it shifts our focus away from home. Immediately after the announcement, there were the expected reactions -- widespread and heartfelt praise for Sam’s courage and the more limited gay slurs and dismissals mostly hidden behind anonymity and Twitter handles. But, like with Jackie Robinson, the battle is not waged on the high or low ground of the extremes. It is waged in the center. And in the center you can see that the Michael Sam story -- and the story of how we see gay people in 2014 -- is extremely complicated.
“First of all,” one NFL general manager told Peter King, “we don’t think he’s a very good player. The reality is he’s an overrated football player in our estimation. Second: he’s going to have expectations of where he should be drafted, and I think he’ll be disappointed. He’s not going to get drafted where he thinks he should. The question you will ask yourself, knowing your team, is, ‘How will drafting him affect your locker room?’ And I am sorry to say where we are at this point and time, I think it’s going to affect most locker rooms. A lot of guys will be uncomfortable. Ten years from now, fine. I think being openly gay is a factor in the locker room.”
This quote is so remarkable, I had to print it in full. Have you ever heard any GM, on the record or on background, say such distasteful things publicly about a college football player, much less a deeply respected and much decorated one?
Let’s see if we hit all the checkpoints.
— Lacks the capability to play in the NFL? Check.
— Doesn’t have the attitude to play in the NFL? Check.
— Some homophobic teammates would not accept him? Check.
— His presence would alter team chemistry? Check.
— In a perfect world, it would be great to include gay football players? Check.
— But we don’t live in a perfect world? Check.
— Soon, though. Later, though. Say: Ten years. Check, check and check.
Somehow, a man who has risen to the general manager of an NFL team felt comfortable saying this rubbish -- behind anonymity -- in 2014. He’s not alone. Jonathan Vilma, while making clear that he’s not homophobic, told the NFL Network’s Andrea Kremer that he wouldn’t feel comfortable with some gay player looking at him in the shower. Former NFL punter Chris Kluwe believes he was released, at least in part, because of his outspoken support for gay rights and says he endured intense bigotry from one coach. And so on.
Michael Sam is already a pioneer. Before this season began, he told his teammates that he was gay. And then he was a leader on a Missouri team that shocked everyone, went 12-2, reached the SEC Championship game, played in the Cotton Bowl. He led the SEC in sacks. He was named the conference’s defensive player of the year. He was quietly but proudly gay and his teammates -- young men who come from all sorts of backgrounds and undoubtedly have all sorts of feelings about homosexuality -- rallied around him.
We already live in a world where this can happen. We shouldn’t wait for history to make it obvious.