Michael Sam: This is what courage looks like

The new face of gay rights? The Human Rights Campaign is already using Michael Sam's image in an ad for its organization.

The new face of gay rights? The Human Rights Campaign is already using Michael Sam’s image in an ad for its organization.

This is what courage looks like

People who don’t understand the courage shown by Michael Sam in publicly acknowledging his homosexuality this weekend haven’t spent much time around an NFL locker room, the sporting press, or a town like Sam’s hometown, Hitchcock, Texas. Having done all three, I offer these thoughts.

Coming out isn’t about personal embarrassment or people knowing your darkest secret. We all have secrets we’d rather not be discussed on entire segments of the Today Show or NPR. But what Sam chose to reveal isn’t just about risking public ridicule, for him, coming out can be downright dangerous.

This is what courage looks like.

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Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator

I learned of the risks more than 20 years ago. My sister called me to tell me she was gay after her then-partner and she were pretty savagely beaten. A neighbor had used a wooden rifle to punch her partner in the face, dragged her down the stairs to his apartment and threatened to rape her, then my sister stepped in to defend her. The person responsible was never charged with any crime for these assaults, a detail that still causes intense anger for me,. Violence against gay people is still a major problem in this nation. In statistics compiled by the Human Rights Coalition, there were 1,265 LGBT-related acts of hate crimes reported to the FBI in 2007, the most recent year for which numbers are available. And this is a crime that gets very under-reported. Sam is a big guy, but cowards run in mobs, and carry big sticks. In coming out, Sam is standing up to them.

This is what courage looks like.

But there are deeper layers. Sam is very close to an NFL draft and a major payday, the fulfillment of his dreams. And much as we’d like to pretend we’re in the 21st century and everyone’s gotten progressive, NFL locker rooms at this stage can be as open-minded as Phil Robertson, the guy from “Duck Dynasty.”

Homophobic slurs are extremely commonplace, and that’s with the press in the room, one can safely assume it’s worse when it’s “just the guys.” This is a league that ran off Dave Meggyesy  for anti-war activities, sent Warren Moon to Canada because teams weren’t ready for an African-American quarterback, and has made Chris Kluwe a villain for speaking out about homophobia on his team, the Minnesota Vikings — and Kluwe’s not even gay.

Sports Illustrated ran a piece after Sam’s announcement that included comments from some anonymous NFL personal types (whom, may I say, are not what courage look like) who say coming out could significantly hurt Sam’s draft stock. They fed us the same line of bull, “the locker room’s not ready for this,” that we heard before the L.A. Rams signed African Americans Woody Strode and Kenny Washington in 1946. Can you believe we’re still getting that line?

Sam took on the NFL establishment and potential teammates not ready to deal with the reality of human sexuality the way he took on the best linemen in the SEC and the Big 12.

The reaction from the press has been a little more subtle. Aside from the Sports Illustrated piece there hasn’t been a ton of outright hostility to the idea. Shaun King of Fox Sports made some very ugly comments, but for the most part what we’ve seen is guys trying to be supportive but demonstrating a real lack of understanding of the subject. I’ve seen MU reporters and columnists and others around the state of Missouri making comments about Sam having “admitted” he is gay, about “the gay lifestyle,” about “sexual preference.” That’s kind of like that your old uncle who used to talk about how he had no trouble with “colored people.” This lack of awareness is a tougher battle and Sam will help a lot to raise that awareness. It shouldn’t have to be his job; his job is to go to the NFL and crush quarterbacks — but he picked up that responsibility when he made his announcement. For much of the nation that isn’t into the arts or other areas where gay people have been accepted and respected for years, if he becomes a big deal in the NFL, Sam will be THE face of gay America. And he knows going in that will be the case.

This is what courage looks like.

And the reaction that matters won’t just be in the locker rooms and the press. Hitchcock is a city of around 7,000 people near Galveston. Trust me…this ain’t San Francisco or Greenwich Village. It doesn’t take too many nasty comments from old friends or being snubbed by family members to cause a hurt that it takes a lot of support to overcome.

For a closeted gay person, coming out to friends can be difficult, coming out to parents can be much worse. Michael Sam Sr. originally expressed support for his son but since Monday he has changed his tone, saying he is uncomfortable with his son’s orientation. It takes time sometimes, but when a family can find a way to be affirming with a gay child, it can make a world of difference. I’ve seen it go to the other way too, with an inability to accept things as they are permanently wrecking family relationships. Telling one’s parents that you’re gay is a truly frightening act.

This is what courage looks like.

Even if he doesn’t gain the backing of family, there is another family that Sam belongs to, and Monday they came through like the champions they are. In more than 26 years at the University of Missouri, I’m not sure I was ever as proud of this school as I was Monday, watching message after message of love and acceptance for Sam roll past on my Twitter feed. Administrators, coaches, strategic communications people, varsity athletes from every team, men and women—and most of all, Sam’s football teammates.

Kentrell Brothers, like Sam from a relatively small town, Guthrie, Okla. He said, via Twitter, “It takes a lot of courage to do what he did. And we are behind him all the way.” Several teammates, such as Nick Monaghan and Jake Hurrell, tweeted a slogan we’ve heard before, but was proven more true than ever yesterday, both tweeting simply, “One Mizzou.”

But my favorite statement took my mind back to something said at church earlier in the day. My church, Rock Bridge Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and our sister church, Fifth Street Christian, had its annual “Race Relations Sunday,” in which we share a service and then a big potluck meal. The Rev. Marcus Reynolds of Fifth Street gave an inspired message, but during his sermon he talked honestly about the idea of the day: that it seems a little condescending, and for those who’ve been involved in civil rights work for decade after decade, there’s something a little sad about the fact that it still seems necessary for churches to have “Race Relations Sunday” in 2014.

I heard echoes of Reynolds’ words when Shawn Davis of Mizzou Athletic’s Strategic Communications office tweeted, “This is big for the sports world. Will be even bigger when he is referred to as just a football player.”

So we saw courage yesterday, and not just from Sam, but from the whole Mizzou family. Here’s hoping that in the weeks to come, knowing the support he has here will help Sam through challenges he’s sure to face.

We already know he has the courage.

Darren Hellwege is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association and the Football Writers Association of America

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