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Michael Sam is no Jackie Robinson

Earlier this month the St. Louis Rams selected University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam in the 7th round of the NFL draft. He was the 249th overall pick, which means under normal circumstances, the media could care less. But these weren’t normal circumstances because Sam became the first openly gay player to be drafted by a National Football League team.

Some sports pundits and social commentators likened the selection of Sam to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, but in my mind, the two momentous events aren’t even close.

In 1947, black men were still being lynched for looking at a white woman. Men of color couldn’t eat in certain restaurants, stay at most hotels, and were made to use separate restrooms from white men. And though many players in the famed Negro Leagues were superior athletes to their white counterparts, the chance of putting a black man in a white team uniform was as remote as putting a man on the moon.

Nevertheless, Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey could see the future, and he knew he could win more pennants if his team was integrated. Rickey carefully screened Negro League talent before settling on Robinson to be the subject of his grand experiment. Rickey warned Jackie that he would face daily insults and racial hate speech, then came the now famous dialogue between the two men in which Robinson reportedly said, “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back,” to which Rickey replied that he was looking for a Negro player “with guts enough NOT to fight back.”

Sure enough, Jackie endured racial slurs and death threats, and the St. Louis Cardinal ball team even threatened to strike if Robinson took the field against them. Now, nearly 70 years later, another team in St. Louis has chosen to break down, not resist, another kind of social barrier by selecting a gay man to play pro football.

To be sure, prejudice, discrimination, and hatred toward gays still exist today. Thankfully, though, our nation is moving (slowly but surely) toward acceptance of comprehensive gay rights, and the vilest homophobia is increasingly limited to religious zealots. That makes Michael Sam’s battles much easier to endure than those of Mr. Robinson, who faced widespread racism. Still, Sam is now under a microscope, and, like it or not, he must realize that, like Robinson before him, his behavior must be professional and exemplary at all times. Jackie knew that his success would lead to more black players entering major league baseball, and Michael must surely know that the same is true for his impact on the future of gay players in the NFL. The problem is, he’s not acting like it.

Upon hearing that he had been drafted, the first thing Michael did was give his partner a long, passionate kiss in front of a worldwide audience. Then, to celebrate, Sam smeared something that looked like wedding cake all over his boyfriend’s face and proceeded to kiss and suck it off, again, with the world watching. These were the actions of a man who had just said he wanted to be thought of as a football player and not a gay football player. Well, good luck with that now.

The cake smearing incident went viral and became an indelible image in the minds of other NFL players, coaches, and owners – you know, the guys who Sam wanted to convince that gay players were no different from straight players? A few days later the other shoe dropped. Apparently without the knowledge of Rams executives, Sam cut a deal with Oprah to be the subject of a reality show, which would follow him around 24/7. Speculation is that had the Rams known of Michael’s deal with Oprah, they would not have drafted him, because the last thing they wanted is constant media frenzy disrupting the team. It should be noted that, only hours after I wrote this column, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) rescinded their offer to produce a reality show about Mr. Sam. In a statement to the media, OWN President Eric Logan said that in postponing the reality show, his network was “allowing Michael the best opportunity to achieve his dream of making the team.” Translation? The Rams front office probably told Michael that his chances of making the team would be seriously compromised by the intrusion of cameras into his life and workplace. OWN made a mistake by offering the TV show to Michael, and Michael made a mistake by accepting their offer. The fact that the offer has been rescinded is moot.

Sam has demonstrated already that he is, at best, conflicted by his pledge to want equal treatment, and, at worst, is too immature to appreciate his place in history. Lord knows we need more tolerance not just in locker rooms, but also in living rooms and board rooms, but I fear that Michael Sam is the wrong man to advance that cause. If he is cut from the team now, we may never know if it’s because he lacks the requisite skills, or because the Rams are afraid he might keep sucking cake off of his partner’s face after every game, or continue to make deals with reality show producers who only want to exploit his sexual orientation. I hope he makes the team, but he hasn’t made it easy on himself. !

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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