The first openly gay player drafted into the NFL, Michael Sam, kissed his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, a swimmer for the University of Missouri from 2009-2012, right there for the world to see on TV. And, yes, that meant America would watch a black man kissing a white man, to top it all off.
The couple wasn’t trying to rub it in. They knew they were on TV, and knew there’d be a reaction for sure. They weren’t naïve.
But, anyone watching could see that they were expressing human emotions of relief at the conclusion of a series of events that ended happily for two people who love each other. They weren’t in any closet.
From that moment on, people all over were talking about “the kiss.” Though some, gay or straight, who are annoyed by public displays of affection expressed discomfort, the media actually invaded what was a private residence. Reporters seeking ratings and sensation were tantalizing viewers to stay tuned.
Emotions are emotions, common to all human beings who allow themselves to feel what’s really going on inside. And what turned out to be a much-talked-about event expressed really first and foremost basic, understandable, common, human - not exclusively gay - emotions.
Think of what transpired. There was the multi-day build-up of tension in the room. The issue was whether the NFL would even draft an All-American who should have been picked in the top 20 according to analysts like Fox News’ Bob Beckel.
Beckel’s co-host on The Five, Eric Bolling, would later pontificate snidely that Sam was picked because he was the first openly gay player; “I don’t think he would have been drafted if he had not been.”
“Everybody who passed him by, the owners and general managers, were afraid of a gay person on their team,” Beckel countered, comparing Sam to Jackie Robinson. “And I would say, ‘a pox on your houses.’”
When the hopeful phone call finally came on the third day of the draft telling Sam that the St. Louis Rams had chosen him as the 249th pick in the seventh and final round, what person in touch with their own emotional spectrum couldn’t relate to the tears of happiness, relief, and celebration of a man who finally knew that he would be allowed to begin living his dream?
The emotion in the moment wasn’t checked. It was raw, leading to the supportive and joyful kiss between two young people who stood together sharing an important moment in their life as a couple. What’s wrong with those who don’t see that through their prejudices?
At a press conference later with a swarm of media, Rams’ general manager Les Snead was all class. “All of us in the draft room,” he said, sitting next to Sam, “were aware of the magnitude of the decision; knew it would be a pivot in history….What’s nice about that, is there’s going to be a timeline here: Michael is the first.
“Somewhere in the future, guess what? He’s just going to be a name...that a kid in middle school has got to memorize. We won’t think it’s anything special because it will be normal.”
Rams coach Jeff Fisher agreed: “Michael’s value as a football player was off the charts. We got the historical part. But that’s not why we did it.” Fisher even had his former player and gay activist, Wade Davis, speak with the returning Rams players and front office personnel about Sam.
I grew up in Wisconsin, so the Green Bay Packers are in my DNA. But this is enough to make one a St. Louis Rams fan.
And it’s not to buy into what so many might be expecting – Michael Sam will be judged as the representative of all gay men in sports. Those who criticize him now will be thinking that every career mistake and misstep has to do with his sexual orientation.
It’s the privilege of those in any dominant group to blame the whole non-dominant group for an individual’s mistakes and flaws but never do the same when those in their own group screw-up royally. An unfathomable amount of pressure is on Sam just as it was for the first member of any from a minority to play in any sport.
Instead, it’s to identify with a team that is willing openly to fight the crowd and face any fears about what others will think. Almost every family of an LGBT person knows that they too must go through a coming out process to friends and neighbors by facing their fears of how others will react.
It’s also to have empathy for the emotions of the young couple we saw celebrating who will find their relationship strained by the pressures of celebrity added to everything else in the day-to-day living of any couple’s life. I wish them tons of luck.
There are few couples who can last through all that and find even the level of support that heterosexual couples get from every institution of our society. Even with all the support for those couples, they still flounder. So, I’m hoping these young people can make it together.
I know theoretically and academically why there are people who cannot appreciate human emotions that surround love when the lovers don’t fit their definition of who should love whom. But I still can’t fathom in my heart why common emotions don’t break through their prejudices.
I know that the cause of the critics’ deficiencies is found in the realm of emotions such as fear, disgust, and hate, not in the realm of rationality. These constitute the personal depths few human beings are willing to plumb.
But in a world filled with hate, in a society based on fear, I’m convinced that we need to celebrate love wherever it is even just attempted. And I believe we should celebrate it no matter how ineloquently it’s tried.
If there’s anything with which we should all be able to identify, it’s the common foibles of our own human attempts to love as we’ve plowed through our own lives, attempts that we today would not describe as anything like eloquent.