Gold Medal Performance

Jewish Light Editorial

In Olympic season, as LGBT issues swirl in Vladimir Putin’s officially homophobic Russia, history reminds us of what the world stage can bring in terms of social change and justice. Jesse Owens in 1936 Berlin. John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the medal stand in 1968’s Mexico City games.

And now that world stage comes to our backyard. The public pronouncement by University of Missouri football star Michael Sam that he’s gay, in the leadup to the National Football League draft, reminds us of one inescapable duality: It’s hardest for the first, and yet, change can’t be fully realized without the hardships suffered by the first.

It’s one thing for those around him to know Sam’s sexual orientation, which teammates learned in August and apparently many on campus in Columbia knew prior to the news published by the New York Times and ESPN this week. It’s quite another to make the leap to say it in the spotlight, knowing you are going to become a symbol not only for your identity and values, but for how others see their own values reflected in the mirror when they observe you.

Those values are going to be tested real fast, in particular with the draft, for a league that has never had an active, openly gay athlete. Rather than the whispers and innuendo that they could have hidden behind prior to Sam’s statement, now front offices will have the opportunity to exhibit their bravery or cowardice.

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Everyone knows where the Southeastern Conference co-defensive player of the year ought be drafted based on talent and ability. He’s probably no higher than a third-rounder and no lower than a couple rounds after that — the Senior Bowl may have hurt his perceived positional flexibility. If he falls dramatically from there, or goes off the board, it’s far less likely to be a football decision than an indictment of those associated with a league that can deal with criminal conduct but not sexual orientation.

“Unfortunately,” says Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated, “there are probably certain teams that will eliminate Sam from consideration — not necessarily because he’s gay, but because of institutionalized fears that some players won’t accept him as a teammate. Other franchises may want to avoid the media onslaught that’s sure to descend on whatever franchise selects him.”

Vague concern about “player reactions” or media concerns is not an excuse. It was not an excuse for Major League Baseball with Jackie Robinson or his American League counterpart, Larry Doby, and it is not an excuse now. NFL athletes are supposedly professional men playing a professional game, and they are expected to act in a way that demonstrates respect and character for all those who participate.

The NFL has a massive public relations machine that works overtime to convince us of its commitment to communities, through charity and commitment to the underserved and disenfranchised in those areas. We’re hoping it walks the walk here, and so far, it’s gotten things right with this early release: “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.” We’ll see over time how deep the league’s convictions are.

Why are we so emphatic on this situation with Sam?  Because in a very real sense, LGBT communities locally, nationally and globally are experiencing many of the issues Jews have had to cope with in history, all over the globe.  From the horrific anti-gay “propaganda” laws in Russia to that country’s hooligans savagely beating gay and lesbian  protesters, to the draconian vow in Nigeria to “cleanse” the African nation of gays. This is how how Jews have been treated, abused, humiliated and murdered.

We know this will not be easy; it never is. But Sam’s pioneering decision to come forth — hardly a comfortable one, especially given what it might mean to his financial future — will create a smoother path for others. As members of an historically persecuted minority, we owe him a tremendous thanks.