If you have turned on ESPN in the last two weeks, you have heard about Michael Sam. He is about to be the first openly gay player in NFL history who is on an active roster. I have seen a lot of stories about why his announcement matters, and that it will issue in a new age of equality and acceptance in sports.
I have not seen one written by someone who played sports and happens to be gay, so I thought that I would write one myself. I want people to see why this really matters.
I grew up in some of the most conservative, religious places in the nation: Montana, Idaho, Utah and Oklahoma.
When considering locations that are open and accepting of gay people, none of these states will end up at the top of anyone’s list. Missouri, likewise, isn’t the first place that comes to mind.
This conflict in religious and cultural values ultimately created quite a bit of conflict for me.
I knew that I was attracted to people of the same sex. However, I could not accept the fact that I was gay.
It seemed foreign to me. I played basketball; I was on the high school team.
How could I be gay?
The conflict continued to worsen; it was agonizing trying to reconcile my sexuality with what I saw in the world around me. In the locker room, we all made jokes about gay people – a lot of them mean, calculated. It wasn’t intentional targeting, we thought that we were just having fun. But I knew deep down that everything we said was wrong on a fundamental level. I just didn’t have the courage to recognize it.
When I look at Michael Sam, I see someone who is doing what I couldn’t. He is opening eyes by being honest. He’s just being himself, nothing more.
I like to believe that one of the main indicators of social progress comes from looking at sports. During the Civil Rights era, Jackie Robinson broke barriers because of the color of his skin. Now it isn’t surprising to see athletes with different skin colors, because it has no bearing on the quality of player or person.
Michael Sam is that torchbearer for the LGBT community.
I think that had there been an openly gay athlete in a major sport when I was growing up, I would have been able to accept my sexuality so much easier; there would have been less internal conflict.
It’s because athletes were my role models. Ray Allen, Andrei Kirilenko, Glenn Robinson, Allen Iverson, Tom Gugliotta, Jason Williams, Brian Grant, Gilbert Arenas…I idolized my favorite basketball players and tried to emulate many of them on and off the court.
But I always felt so excluded. I felt like there was something wrong with me. I thought that there was no one like me. I was alone.
Now children and young adults who were in my position finally will be able to recognize that they aren’t alone. Being gay doesn’t mean that you are one thing or another. The LGBT community is diverse and we all deserve to feel accepted.
For me, Michael Sam demonstrates that we are so much more than our sexuality, we’re people, and, ultimately, that’s why his announcement is so important.