Michael Sam, the St. Louis Rams defensive end who is trying to become the first openly gay player in NFL history, was back in the news this week thanks to nothing of his own doing. Instead, Sam was garnering headlines because of the comments of former NFL coach-turned-NBC Sports analyst Tony Dungy, who said in a recent interview that he wouldn’t have drafted Sam because he would create distractions in the locker room.
“I wouldn’t have taken him,” Dungy told the Tampa Tribune. “Not because I don’t believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it. It’s not going to be totally smooth . . . things will happen.’’
After a day of backlash, Dungy tried to clarify those comments, saying that he believes the NFL is a place where spots are earned on merit and that if Sam can play he should play. But Dungy didn’t make his original remarks any better, as he still stood by the sentiment that the media coverage of Sam’s status as the first openly gay player would create distractions.
Sam got his chance to respond Tuesday, and he did so in perfect fashion.
“Thank god he wasn’t the St. Louis Rams coach,” Sam joked to the media. “But I have a great respect for Coach Dungy, and like everyone in America, everyone is entitled to their own opinions.”
“I mean, it is what it is, what you gonna do?” Sam added. “My focus is on making this team. I’m so excited to be back with the guys. Football’s fun.”
Sam’s choice to take the high road is admirable, but his response is also telling. His focus, as he said, is on “making this team.” That’s what he’s in camp to do, that’s what the St. Louis Rams drafted him to do.
There is an unmistakable and unavoidable other side to Michael Sam’s presence in the league, one he touched on in accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY’s last week when he told the story of talking to a young, suicidal girl struggling with her decision to come out. That side is significant and worth telling — it is precisely why Sam will generate the media coverage he will receive — and in many ways Michael Sam the LGBT advocate is inseparable from Michael Sam the football player.
But in many ways too, those two Michael Sams are totally separable. When he is on the field or in the locker room, he’s a football player first, a man trying to make his team and later on help his team win. If an openly gay man doing his best to make the team on the field while living his life off of it distracts his coaches and teammates, they might want to become better at their jobs. Good coaches and players, as NFL veteran Donte’ Stallworth wrote in this space after Sam came out, don’t let things like this distract them.
Of course, even discussing the topic lends credence to the idea that Michael Sam is or could be a distraction for any reason at all. “Distraction,” as I’ve written before, has become a convenient label teams apply to athletes they don’t want to deal with. When it comes to openly gay players or those who advocate for LGBT equality specifically, it is often a term that gives them an excuse for not dealing with internal problems they don’t want to face. In Sam’s case, it’s an easy reason avoid confronting the potential problems coaches like Dungy or players like those who might agree with him haven’t faced in themselves.
The biggest fears executives in the NFL and other leagues have had about openly gay players wasn’t that the gay guy himself would be a problem, but that his presence would elicit reactions from inside the league that weren’t pretty and invited negative media coverage. That is exactly what happened here. It was Tony Dungy, not Michael Sam, who put this issue back into the news. It was Dungy’s words, not anything Sam said or did, that created another round of media coverage. It was Dungy’s comments that sent reporters running to Sam to ask him to respond.
It is Tony Dungy who created a distraction. Michael Sam is just trying to play football.
Jason Collins, who became the NBA’s first openly gay player this year, spoke out about Dungy’s comments on TakePart Live last night. Collins’ time with the Brooklyn Nets seemed to disprove the idea that a gay player would become a media distraction, and he reiterated that in the interview, telling host Jacob Soboroff that “personnel, coaches, owners can look at my example, my journey in the NBA and see that after two weeks it was about basketball.”
“There were games, especially even a month after I was signed, that reporters didn’t ask me any questions,” Collins said. “It will always go back to the sport because there’s only so many ways they can write the article. There’s only so many ways they can keep talking about LGBT issues when you’re a professional athlete because you’re a professional athlete first.”