Arizona State v Missouri

Photo Credit: Jamie Squire/GETTY IMAGES

“Horrible.”

That was the word used to describe Michael Sam being drafted by the St Louis Rams by Miami Dolphins’ safety Don Jones in a tweet. He has since been fined an undisclosed amount by the National Football League, but thankfully that was the only notable negative reaction.

Why would The League fine a player for commenting on a 7th round draft pick? Because it wasn’t about Michael Sam’s ability on the field and how it affects Missouri’s football team, no, it was a comment about Sam hugging and kissing his boyfriend live on ESPN – America’s largest sports network.

Michael Sam is a 261 pound, six foot two inch tall African American defensive end – formerly for the University of Missouri Tigers. He’s been big news for the past few months, despite being considered by many, a player unlikely to set the NFL on fire, as Jarrett Bell points out:

“Sam was never anybody’s first-round draft pick. He’s undersized for a defensive end at 6-2, 261.”

His nationwide intrigue is not a race thing, nor is it a playing ability thing it seems, it is due to him becoming the first openly gay football player.

When Sam announced he was gay on ESPN’s Outside The Lines show back on February 9th, it created quite a stir, but thankfully it was mostly positive.

“Every year we get a couple of weeks where we have to talk about topics like Michael Sam,” admitted Colin Cowherd on his ESPN sports talk show. “But we do, we share our views and we all get a bit smarter.”

Sam hasn’t had anywhere near as much opposition as minority groups have previously encountered in The Land Of The Free throughout it’s history. He’s been accepted and more importantly supported, by both the media and public.

There’s been no need for a bus boycott or a march on Washington – the majority of the hate has stemmed from rash twitter outbursts and un-moderated comment sections on websites. The face behind the hatred is invisible and the threat is too. Just over 67 years ago Americans stopped in their tracks to witness Jackie Robinson break the colour barrier in baseball, and we are now on the precipice of something similar.

“There will be a lot written this week about Sam,” says MMQB.com’s Robert Klemko. “We’ll discuss why he fell to the seventh round. We’ll wonder, will Sam even make the Rams roster?

“We’ll talk about pick 249 as a historic moment.”

In a draft which for the first six rounds were centred around the newest polarising celebrity quarterback coming through the college system – Johnny Manziel – it was a breath of fresh air to see the raw emotion of a young man pursuing his dream, and doing it without anything to hide.

Nevertheless, prejudice is still a talking point in the US, as former Los Angeles Clippers owner – Donald Sterling – has just proved. Sterling has spent the last few weeks in the public eye for the racist remarks he made about African Americans to his girlfriend which were caught on tape and published – leading to his dismissal from the NBA.

“You can sleep with [black people] . You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my [Clippers] games,” he said.

Donald Sterling is clearly of another generation and mindset from the majority. An 80-year-old who represents a historical picture of America before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Sure, Sam slipped down the draft order, and wasn’t picked until the final day, which gives him a mountain to climb – but he was still drafted. Jeff Fisher, head coach of the St Louis Rams has made it clear he understands the magnitude of the decision to draft Sam:

“I know exactly what we’re getting into, and I’m not worried at all,” he said after making the pick.

Sam’s jersey is second only to Manziel in sales since the draft. The public have shown they will back him at every opportunity, and players like Jason Collins have too. It’s going to make the next few NFL seasons even more popular, to even more people.

America is still changing, in a good way. 2014 has seen gay marriage legalised in 18 states at time of writing and now this, another moment symbolising a progressive leap forward, fittingly bookended by a kiss.

“I think I can be a beacon for those people [gay athletes] . I want them to be like, ‘I can be comfortable in my own skin and be like Michael Sam’,” Sam told ABC News.

“I’ve grown up in a great generation [that's] more accepting of people. We’re living in 2014. I just see only possibility and great opportunity.”

Stephen Kilbey

Featured image credit: NBC News

 

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