When I read the news this weekend that Michael Sam didn't make the 2014 roster for the St. Louis Rams, I actually thought about Jill Abramson. I thought about these two people whose names we know and the many others whose names we do not know who are casualties, in one form or another, of the quiet kinds of discrimination that can feel hard to name with any precision.
Abramson was the first and only female executive editor of the New York Times, which in and of itself points to a gender problem. For nearly two centuries, the most influential newspaper in the world did not think there was a woman capable of leading its newsroom. When word of Abramson's ouster got out, a lot of people, particularly female journalists, pointed to the sexism that characterized much of the reporting on her tenure, the persistent gender gap in the media and the sexism that informs how we expect women to behave in leadership positions. But the Times' official line on her departure -- about the direction of the paper and Abramson's performance in the top spot -- found a lot of support among others in the media eager to dismiss the role of sexism. The response seemed to be: You think it was sexism that got her sacked? Prove it.
The responses to Sam's release have more or less followed a similar script. There are the people who believe that discrimination is a real and an insidious force that operates in unexpected and sometimes unseen ways, and those who don't. "It can't be stressed enough how Sam not being signed despite a productive preseason is almost unprecedented," wrote the Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman, who also called out the NFL's cowardice in treating Sam's sexuality as a "distraction" while embracing domestic abusers and dog testicle electrocuters. "In my two decades of covering the NFL, it isn't just rare; it's basically unheard of for a player to not make the league after playing well in the preseason. A player who produces like Sam did almost always makes it on some roster in the league, either on a practice squad or a 53-man roster." And Outsports founder Cyd Zeigler laid out the problem pretty succinctly in a weekend interview about Sam. "I don’t believe he's not at the St. Louis Rams because he is gay. I believe he is not in the NFL because he is gay.”
The NFL has never had an openly gay player. It has proven itself to be a haven for homophobes. And the anonymous whispers from league officials point to an aversion to "distractions" that, as Dave Zirin pointed out at the Nation, are just another way to cover for its bigotry. But despite this context and history -- despite there being every reason to believe that homophobia played a strong hand in Sam's release -- others have argued and will continue to argue that Sam not finding a home with any team has nothing to do with his sexuality and everything to do with his abilities as a player and the needs within the league. The response, once again, seems to be: You think it was homophobia that got him cut? Prove it.
But this is a coward's response. There often isn't a smoking gun when it comes to institutional discrimination and bigotry that floats in the ether, but to ignore it is beyond naiveté. It's ignorance in the service of the status quo, a hushed and cowardly bigotry that the NFL seems intent on maintaining.