It would have been historic even without the kiss. But while the critics continue their predictable frothing over Michael Sam’s emotional response this weekend to his NFL draft, it doesn’t change the fact that the world is a different place now because of it.
The illusion of professional sports as an exclusively, aggressively hetero-friendly domain had already been solidly chipped before the draft this weekend. Two years ago, the NFL’s Brendon Ayanbadejo expressed his support for marriage equality, and then Chris Kluwe famously backed him up with an outspoken response to critics. In 2013, NBA center Jason Collins came out in Sports Illustrated. And then in February, months before the draft, Michael Sam described himself as “am an openly, proud gay man,” and opened a new door for honesty and acceptance. Yet just a few days ago, Sam’s chances of even being drafted at all stood at roughly 50/50. That he’d already scored an endorsement deal with Visa indicated that being gay doesn’t have to make a man sponsorship-averse, but it also didn’t guarantee a career – or indicate what that career would look like.
That changed on Saturday in the span of a phone call – and the moments immediately afterward. It happened not just with the Rams’ indication that the NFL is ready for an openly gay player, but in Sam’s tearful, bowled over response. It happened when he joyfully smooched his boyfriend Vito Cammisano — and in the way an entire roomful of jubilant friends and family witnessed the whole thing and supportively celebrated with them.
The partners of sports figures always tend to attract attention. The WAGS (women and girlfriends) are part of the culture of the NFL, a lusted-after collection of supermodels and actresses. It’s going to be different from here on in. Having now seen a photo of Cammisano shirtless, I fully support this new expansion of the pool to include husbands and boyfriends.
But that gay, interracial display of affection was guaranteed to blow a few gaskets. Mostly notably, former Giants player Derrick Ward went on a Twitter spree to declare that “Man U got little kids lookin at the draft. I can’t believe ESPN even allowed that to happen” — while claiming rather unconvincingly that “Even if he kissed a girl I woulda said the same thing.” Don’t remember him getting upset when the NBA drafted girlfriend busser Jan Vesely, though, or too many other critics stepping up throughout the NFL’s well-documented history of men kissing women. Miami Dolphins safety Don Jones has already been fined and suspended for tweeting that the kiss was “horrible,” though he’s since apologized. And inevitably, a slew of horrified reactions from fans also poured via Twitter and YouTube, who are concerned about “homos invading the NFL” with their “FAGGET ACTIONS” [sic].
In his new Visa spot, Sam defiantly asks fans to “Judge me for what I do on the field.” But that very message acknowledges that his place in sports will always be defined both on and off it. Like other public figures, he’ll be watched and scrutinized for his private life and his relationships. That kiss – and the roomful of supporters – invited the world to see Michael Sam as he is, both as a player and a man. He’s not going to play it down for the comfort of anybody else – and this is important. It’s important because it’s the answer to everybody who argues that they don’t have a problem with gay people, but you know, they just prefer them not to be quite so “open and avowed” about it.
While that kiss might not do anything to open the hearts of the crazy YouTube ranters, it is a big step toward tolerance and equality. So if you’ve somehow managed to successfully avert your eyes for too long, or think that gay people are fine as long as they’re not being gay in front of you, go ahead and look. It’s not scary or strange. This is love. This is celebration. This is normal. And as long ago Harvey Milk said, “Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all.”