On Tuesday, ESPN correspondent Josina Anderson filed a report from the St. Louis Rams’ locker room about whether or not Michael Sam showers with his teammates. Sam, the first openly gay man to be drafted by an NFL team, has been no stranger to controversy. By merely existing, by being a gay man who wants to play professional football, Sam is challenging stereotypes and ingrained notions about what makes a man and what exactly are the components of masculinity. Unfortunately, in terms that remind a person of the most childish taunts, ESPN reduced these thoughts to a story about whether or not Michael Sam showers with his teammates, with whether or not a gay man will see a straight man naked.
Is this an actual issue? It depends. In an excellent article on Deadspin, reporter Tom Ley opens with a quote describing Jackie Robinson’s showering habits. At the beginning of his tenure with the Dodgers, Robinson would shower without his teammates, due to the fear that they would not accept the idea of showering with a black man. Another Dodgers player finally convinced him that he was on the team, and he should shower with the team. Ley then goes on to say how it was important for Jackie to take that step, to say, “I am just like you.” Ley believes that by focusing on whether or not Michael Sam is doing his teammates a favor by keeping his distance, ESPN is doing a disservice to the powerful story of a man accepting who he is in the face of adversity and reaching for the brass ring. He is right, but there is a broader context.
Michael Sam is arguably the biggest story concerning civil rights and acceptance since Jackie Robinson. Sam is fighting for the same equality that Robinson did, just for a different issue. Whereas Jackie Robinson could not hide the color of his skin and was the first of his kind to deal with this issue in major league sports, Michael Sam is not. The “dirty little secret” that no one is talking about is the fact that Michael Sam would not be the first gay man to shower with an NFL team. He is not even the second. Six former NFL players have come out of the closet after they retired from football. Presumably, they were gay men showering with their teammates. The difference between these former players and Michael Sam? Their teammates did not know about it.
So, if there is apprehension about stepping into a shower naked with Sam, whose problem is this then? Is it Michael Sam’s, a guy who just wants to play football, no matter his sexual preference? Or is it the problem of the rest of the St. Louis Rams, men who can not wrap their heads around the simple fact that, though Michael Sam might want to have sex with men, that does not mean he wants to have sex with them. If Michael Sam feels the need to wait so as to not aggravate his potential teammates, than that is sad. Instead of being able to accept the gift that is trying out for an NFL team, Sam instead must focus on something he cannot change. His head is out of the game. On the other hand, if it is Sam’s would-be teammates who are suggesting, implicitly or otherwise, that Sam wait to shower, then that behavior is unacceptable and reprehensible. The NFL has come out clearly stating that it does not condone discrimination due to sexual orientation. These actions are against policy, and should be dealt with swiftly.
That just leaves ESPN and their questionable report. What is ESPN reporting on when it reports on how Michael Sam showers? They are really reporting on the changing attitudes that the American public is having about gay rights. The report might as well have been called “Showering With a Gay Dude: Weird or Not Weird?” This is how the American people are going to suss out its feelings about the whole matter. By questioning, sometimes awkwardly, the changing face of gay men and women and masculinity and femininity and what it all means. Most likely, Josina Anderson does not believe that it is wrong for straight men to shower with Michael Sam. As a college athlete herself, Anderson very well may have showered with her own gay teammates, knowingly or unknowingly. So, while ESPN may have been a little clunky and awkward in their reporting, it was most likely not intended as a slight against Michael Sam.
Which is not to say it will not be treated like one. Michael Sam must be dealing with an avalanche of feelings and emotions and thoughts about his current position as a history maker. In an interview with Out magazine, the interviewer describes how Michael Sam was on his guard, slightly closed off until he found out that the interviewer, a man named Christopher Glazek, was also gay. Sam has to be on his guard. As evidenced by the ESPN report, even if the aim is not to offend, stories concerning Michael Sam’s sexuality can and will do so. It is not only the American public who is dealing with what it means for Michael Sam to possibly be the NFL’s first openly gay player, but Michael Sam is dealing with it as well.
Opinion by Bryan Levy