The other night at dinner we were talking with friends about bullying and whether the emphasis that schools place today on combating the issue has had any effect compared to when we were in school, when the issue was virtually ignored. We didn’t reach a consensus, but the conversation got me thinking about Michael Sam, the Missouri defensive lineman who recently publicly announced that he was gay. The public’s reactions ran the spectrum from “wow, look at how far we’ve come,” to “wow, he’s never going to get drafted, what a stupid move,” to things I won’t even repeat.
But the reaction I was most interested in occurred at my family dinner table. My daughter asked us if we thought that her children would look back at gay rights the way we look back at slavery. She wondered if her children would ask her how people could even have wondered why someone like Michael Sam would have had to announce that he was gay. Why anyone would have cared?
Then, I told her about a talk radio show I had listened to earlier that day. The general gist of the conversation was that some NFL owners “off the record” said that they would have difficulty drafting Michael Sam because locker room culture includes derogatory terms about gays that are routinely tossed around, and having someone like Sam in that atmosphere would chill other players’ ability to be themselves. Essentially, the owners were saying that Sam’s civil rights were less important than the straight football players’ rights to be homophobic or bullies.
This wasn’t lost on my daughter. It wasn’t lost on one of the talk show guests either. He pointed out the ridiculous irony this created. Today, if you are an openly gay male in the United States, you can serve in the military and die for your country, but you can’t play football in the NFL? Seems like the NFL is taking itself a bit too seriously.
But there it was on Twitter: the predictable hate. Comments about how were men going to change in front of other men? As if every gay man was looking to scope out straight men in locker rooms. Not to mention the obvious fact that all men, knowingly or not, have changed in locker rooms with gay men. Just because they don’t know whether there are gay men in the locker room, doesn’t mean there aren’t gay men in the locker room. Statistics clearly suggest otherwise.
Then again, during all of this ranting you can find hope. Ten years ago, none of this would have been possible. But after Michael Sam made his announcement, the First Lady of the United States tweeted, “You're an inspiration to all of us, @MikeSamFootball. We couldn't be prouder of your courage both on and off the field.” And, Deion Sanders tweeted, “Michael Sam isn't the 1st gay player in the NFL although he is the 1st 2 come out. #realtalk Let's show him love like a family member. Truth.” And even, “@MikeSamFootball #respect bro. It takes guts to do what you did. I wish u nothing but the best,” from Richie Incognito.
So, coming full circle, I again ask myself whether the bullying education in the schools has had any effect? And I think my answer is this: Most of the negative comments I have seen on this issue so far have been anonymous and attributed to NFL management’s theories about what players in the locker rooms will think. But many of the younger players who have been quoted have had positive things to say. Furthermore, Michael Sam came out to his Missouri teammates this fall before the season began, and they have supported him throughout the season (in and out of the locker room, I might add). It’s the same reason my children can’t see what all the fuss is about. I’d like to hope that that’s a result of years of anti-bullying education. Maybe these things have been taking time, but we’re moving in the right direction.
Nancy Klingeman is married to Henry and the mom of two teenage daughters. She is a writer, a lawyer, and an observer of life's daily pageantry.
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