A friend of mine from high school came out shortly after graduation, and my first thought was “you lied.”
This was twenty years ago, I was a teenager and a girl that I loved had loved him, you see. Her anger and confusion boiled up with my own, and I probably said and did some stupid things in response. I know I thought them. It happens.
I bring this up because mixing facts and feelings and sudden revelations is often a complex and thorny business. I bring this up because the Rams and Michael Sam have now brought together two totally disparate (but not necessarily incompatible) groups of people: those who love the Rams, and those who love to see anti-gay barriers smashed down with a wrecking-ball-sized boldness.
For some, especially those who already fit into both groups, this is a moment of joy. For others, though, who fit in one group but not the other, there has no doubt been a reckoning, a question asked of one’s self: “what does this mean for me?”
Bear with me as I try to walk down both paths: one for Rams Fans, and one for Michael Sam Fans.
For Rams Fans
First off, as you’ll already know if you have a pair of eyeballs and an internet connection, that the entirety of American Media is already lauding you — your team, and by proxy, you — with praise. For your bravery. For your acceptance. For your ability to look beyond social barriers and outdated cultural norms and everything else, and welcome Michael Sam to your team.
Even if you aren’t ready to.
With two phone calls – one to Stan Kroenke, one to Michael Sam himself, both asking “Are you ready?” – Jeff Fisher radically altered the brand of the St. Louis Rams. And with a brazen ESPN production crew on site, Sam’s public display of bliss/relief/pride dropped a land mine into the public consciousness. This was a moment and an image like no other in the history of the NFL.
Now, rather suddenly, the Rams jersey on your back or in your closet has a very different connotation. Regardless of your comfort level with same-sex relationships (forget gay marriage, how about that kiss?) your blue and gold apparel now proclaims you to be a pioneer of gay rights. The Rams’ iconic horns now join rainbow flags and pink triangles as adopted symbols of pride. Particularly for those fans who live in “enemy territory” and proudly display their colors, your pride now stands for something else as well.
Like it or not, the entirety of your summer is going to be filled with loaded questions from goggle-eyed co-workers, from distant aunts and uncles, from neighbors and Facebook friends etc. “SO!?!? MICHAEL SAM, HUH?!!??!”
And like it or not, you have already been instructed on how to react. “With open arms,” or at least “With an open mind.” That, and “Let’s judge him as a football player.”
That’s logical. That’s the tenor of today’s social climate. But raw feelings are not often so easily resolved. What do you do if you are mildly revulsed by the reality of seeing your team’s new hero kissing another man? What do you do if you are more than mildly revulsed? What do you do if the moral fibers with which you have been raised are now in conflict with the ardor you have developed for a professional football team?
The world of sports blogging is an interesting place. People flock to sites like this one for one of two reasons: to look for a new perspective on their team, or more likely, to confirm an opinion they already have. Either way, most of the readers on this site are inherently asking its authors to assure them – or convince them – of how they’re supposed to feel about the Rams.
In this case, I’m not going to tell you how you should feel about Michael Sam, St. Louis Ram, First Gay NFL Player.
You feel how you feel, and it’s okay to feel conflicted. It’s okay to worry about whether or not you will be starting an argument just by putting on your favorite player’s jersey. It’s okay to be afraid of even taking that jersey out of the closet. (If you have that fear, now you know, on a very small level, what it’s like to live life “in the closet.”)
I share those fears. And not because I harbor any resentment toward Michael Sam, or Jeff Fisher, or my varied gay friends and family members, but because I consider my love of sports to be a beautifully inviolate place that is immune from discussion of politics and/or religion and/or anything else of real consequence. Sports is a perfectly temporal experience, where past (“goddammit”), present (“I hope”) and future (“please”) are entirely cocooned within the boundaries of a 120-yard field and a few thousand watts of TV-friendly lighting. This perfectly inviolate field is a common ground across which I can reach out to thousands of people, a tiny slice of shared experience in a huge Venn diagram of disparate lives.
Now comes this divisive story, this event that might cause hundreds of those thousands to uproot themselves, to tear themselves away from this common ground. Now comes a whole new slice of people who had no particular love of this team, or perhaps even this game, who suddenly want to share this experience. Now comes that fear that even I might not know what to do with myself and my feelings.
However, in my forty years on this planet, I have learned a few times over that fears, and feelings, can be fleeting. That sometimes, our greatest fears immediately precede our greatest moments of joy.
I was terrified the first (and second and third) time I took the stage as a musician in front of live people. I had to conquer all kinds of self-doubt and demons before being able to propose to my wife. I was scared shitless before, during, and after the birth of my first child. Each of these turned out to be transformative experiences, ones I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Likewise, a man can be shocked to his core if his grown up little girl comes home engaged to a person of the wrong type, wrong gender, or the wrong color. This crisis still happens on a daily basis, despite what the TV might tell you. And that shock might last until that father holds, for the first time, his grandson. And sees his own eyes embedded in a nine-pound cafe-au-lait bundle of precious flesh.
Then the crisis passes, and the father – a grandfather now – realizes that it is more fruitful to love that child, to adopt that child and the union that created it, than to reject it. Life always does go on, after all.
Likewise, concerned Rams fan, if you let this moment of crisis pass, if you let your initial revulsion die down, you can accept your newest Ram for who he is, and your newest fellow fans for who they are. People who suddenly want the same thing that you do – a brave and bold victory by your team.
Michael Sam, like so many in the hero mold, seems to thrive when he knows the odds are stacked against him. If he didn’t, he could have looked elsewhere when his school abruptly switched out of the candy-soft Big 12 and into the baddest, toughest conference in college football. If he didn’t, he could just as easily have kept quiet about his sexual orientation to a locker room of 80+ Missouri teammates, each with hundreds of friends and a huge collegiate social media network. If he didn’t, he could have worked through his agents to try to clamp down on pre-draft whispers and innuendo. If he wasn’t, he would never have openly reached out to the press by coming out well into the draft process.
If he wasn’t, he would never have invited his boyfriend to share ESPN’s camera with him as the fateful phone call came in from the head coach of the Rams.
Michael Sam, like Jeff Fisher, doesn’t seem to believe in smokescreens or in subtlety. They both believe the direct approach is best. They both believe that the best thing an underdog can do is to come right at you, full force.
And in that, they and their bond exemplify exactly what you want your Rams to be. A team without fear. You can embrace the fear, or you can embrace the Rams, but it seems that you can no longer do both.
For Michael Sam Fans
First of all, let me say “congratulations.” This is a watershed moment. And secondly, let me ask you what you know about the Rams.
Before this weekend, public perception of the Rams outside of its local fan base was probably limited to “that team that used to be from California” and “remember when Kurt Warner came out of nowhere and won the Super Bowl,” with an echoing chorus of Kurt’s “thank you Jesus!” embedded in the back of your mind.
Warner’s cry, like Sam’s kiss, was a moment of salvation that was paradoxically choreographed and spontaneous. And joyous. Both men knew what the emotion of the moment, and the spotlight of attention, would bring them to do. But while you might watch that kiss over and over with tearful joy, Warner’s evangelizing might give you the creeps.
That might be because everywhere you turn, conservative politicians are pandering to the Christian Right with proposals for legalized anti-gay discrimination. Likewise, if you have two ears and a radio dial, you’ve been told by the media that the NFL doesn’t want Michael Sam, or by proxy, you. Sam has been castigated for speaking out, and it seems clear that a great many people would be happier if he (and you) would have kept your mouths shut, or better yet, simply gone away.
Sam’s coming out story lives in Missouri, home to men such as Rush Limbaugh (who once tried, unsuccessfully, to buy the Rams) and Todd Akin, men whose entire livelihoods stem from an ability to divide people along ideological lines, and who aren’t afraid to wear a false shroud of religion and/or moral rectitude along the way. Too many times, as you know, public expressions of faith have preceded public expressions of extreme ugliness and insult to you and your beliefs. It’s fair to wonder if this fan base that you have hitched your cause to will welcome Sam, or you.
At least in the case of the Rams’ most visible former star, you won’t have to worry.
I appreciate the courage of @michaelsamfootball , now I pray the NFL world reflects that same courage & treats him like the athlete he is!
— Kurt Warner (@kurt13warner) February 10, 2014
Now, are there others less charitable in the Rams’ fan base? Most certainly. Some of them are probably angrily typing in comment section, or furiously hitting the “unfollow” button on Twitter, as we speak.
The world of sports blogging is an interesting place. We aren’t supposed to talk about politics, religion, or relationships. When we do, people flock to stories like this one for one of two reasons: to confirm that the writer believes as they think he should, or to cover him with the verbal tar and feathers of shame for being foolish enough to step out of the safe sportswriting world of bland quotes and bad metaphors.
In this case, I won’t tell you what to think about Rams fans. But I will try to help you understand them.
Regardless of our individual faiths, Warner’s amazing performance (and Mike Jones’ touchdown-saving Tackle) in Super Bowl 34 was a moment of deliverance for Rams fans everywhere. That win stands out as a promontory in an ocean of frustration, an ocean that extends in all directions, before and since. We suffered for years – decades for many – before that glorious championship run of the late 1990s, and we have suffered again since. We have had our patience tried. We have cast lifelines of hope in so many directions (Marc Bulger! Alex Barron! Drew Bennett! Steven Jackson! Steve Spagnuolo! Josh McDaniels! Sam Bradford! Tavon Austin!) that one wonders that we can still come up with more rope.
The man to whom we have currently pinned our hopes, head coach Jeff Fisher, is the very man we beat in our only Super Bowl win. That might summarize as well as anything else the level of emotional weirdness that we are accustomed to.
This is the team whose jerseys you are apparently flocking online stores to acquire.
However, it is exactly because Jeff Fisher is who he is that Michael Sam, and you, are here. He is a man comfortably insulated from fear. Few head coaches in the NFL enjoy the kind of all-encompassing power and control that Fisher does. He answers only to a distant and detached owner, and everyone else in the organization works for him. And yet, he is far from dictatorial. He speaks with a laconic surfer’s drawl underneath a Nascarian mustache, and exudes an unshakable confidence.
Jeff Fisher believes strongly in building a family inside his building. He recruits players and coaches with strong father-son football bloodlines. His defense, for example, is led by Chris Long, son of Hall of Famer Howie Long. His offense is coached (poorly, but that’s another story) by the son of NFL-lifer Marty Schottenheimer. Fisher’s own son plays at Auburn, which happens to be the alma mater of the team’s top draft pick this season, Greg Robinson.
With this bedrock in place, Fisher is then emboldened to take chances on players who need fathering, or brotherhood. He brings in misfits — too-short defensive backs, too-angry running backs, weird and wayward receivers, blue-collar linemen — as long as he senses that they have some sort of football instinct. Then he lets the clubhouse sort itself out. His ideal roster might not even need him – it would be led entirely by the players on the field and held together by his aura of trust.
It’s telling that Fisher didn’t consult anyone before making the decision to draft Sam, to insert this potentially divisive issue into his locker room. He didn’t consult his coaches. He didn’t poll his players beforehand to make sure that they were mentally (or socially) prepared for this event.
That just isn’t a part of his process. Whatever happens, a family is supposed to just work it out.
SI columnist Mike Silver was in the Rams’ draft room when Fisher made the decision to draft Michael Sam. And he captures Fisher’s aura perfectly, through the words of a junior Rams staffer, in his excellent Rams war room article.
“Such a pimp move. It was, Guess what I’m gonna do? Whatever the (expletive) I want. In the world today, it’s truly impressive. That’s what makes him the best guy to work for, and why so many of us would kill for the guy. It’s very simple: Trust The ‘Stache. It’s big and powerful for a reason.”
The Rams family trusts Fisher, and he trusts his players and coaches to do with Sam what they’ve done with countless misfits beforehand – to adopt him into the clubhouse family, and work it out from there.
It’s just a gut feeling of mine, but Fisher has a continuing storyline in mind for Michael Sam. Unless he completely bombs out, he is going to be given every opportunity to earn a spot on the 53-man roster. That is yet another barrier to break down. He is going to be given an opportunity to become the first openly gay player to ______. Start an NFL game. Register a tackle. Sack a quarterback. Force a fumble, perhaps even score a touchdown.
Fisher wants this man in the record books. He wants Michael Sam’s story to endure.
Now, this is despite the fact that Michael Sam is not a prototypical NFL prospect. He is small for a defensive end, and slow for a linebacker. Small and slow doesn’t normally last long in the big and fast league. However, players with exceptional heart and drive have succeeded plenty of times before, and Sam has those qualities. Fisher himself was a small and slow defensive back for Mike Ditka’s and Buddy Ryan’s Chicago Bears. His time as a player was short, but he transitioned quickly to assistant coaching and continued to grow under Ryan’s wing.
No one knows how long Michael Sam’s story will last here. And if he does not prove to be talented enough to be a Ram for the long term, he may still have a hard time getting second chances with other teams. Not every NFL team has a Jeff Fisher. Like Tim Tebow before him, Sam will carry with him the perception of a player who could be a distraction, who could carry with him undue attention and media spotlight. NFL coaches, as a breed, loathe extra attention.
Just because this barrier has been broken once does not mean it has been dissolved forever across the league. All of that makes Sam’s time with the Rams that much more special.
But what Rams fans want, more than a nice story, more than anything else, is to get back to the top of that mountain, where Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce, Marshall Faulk and a tear-streaked Dick Vermeil once stood. They want that deliverance to glory. And they know that they are facing the single-toughest division in football, perhaps the toughest division in a generation of football.
And if Michael Sam can help tear down that wall, then god bless us all.