By Jason Keidel
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ESPN has been guilty of much media malfeasance over the last 20 years — hijacking another entity’s story and presenting it as their own, pretending to provide nuance on a renowned athlete when they’re often glorified groupies giving all kinds of covert lap dances to the athletic aristocracy, and all manner of celebrity worship under the guise of reportage.
But they are not the reason Michael Sam is not on an NFL roster today.
Despite the report on this site that has a Buffalo Bill flexing an accusatory finger at the “Worldwide Leader,” he can’t assert with any certainty that the media at large is to blame, much less one stop on our cable dial.
In fact, there are myriad reasons, but most of them are probably earnest and honest. Sam isn’t playing not because of his sexual preference, but rather his football production.
ESPN was forced to moonwalk from a report that Sam had not showered with his Rams teammates. Why? Not as in why didn’t he, but why take a fire extinguisher to the story? Clearly it means something, either a clear rancor or reticence on the part of Sam or the Rams. It doesn’t take Studs Terkel to realize football players shower next to each other, and for one player to avoid the ritual is at least interesting, if not compelling.
But we’re all in such a race to sound most enlightened over the first openly gay player in the NFL, we’re walking this semantic landmine one vowel at a time.
So, really, the problem lies in the same place it did before Sam was drafted. With us. It is our preteen bias toward gays that still haunts us, our thoughts, lexicon and leanings toward people we used to typecast in atrociously fictional roles.
In fact, the first true test of our cultural mores will come when a no-doubt, Pro Bowl entity who is openly gay enters the league. How will he be treated. Will he plunge down the draft board? Will he be regarded like all rookies? Or will he be given special treatment, either overly lenient or laborious?
But a marginal player like Sam isn’t the true trial balloon because his place in the league was never assured. Since seventh-round picks are cut all the time, it’s impossible to say for sure why he was. Perhaps the only team in NFL whose intentions are beyond reproach is the St. Louis Rams.
We heaped extra helpings of expectations on Sam not only because of his italicized social status, but also because he won SEC Defensive Player of the Year in college, a distinction that reads better than it actually sounds or plays out. All manner of Heisman winners and others with glittering collegiate lapels flame out before their first NFL season.
Not to mention the Rams are probably the hardest team for a rookie defensive lineman to crack. While the Rams are woefully weak on offense, particularly once the snake-bitten Sam Bradford snapped his ACL for the nth time — they are loaded on defense. But rolling a pulling the handle on the 7th round slot machine is a muted risk. Sam simply wasn’t good enough.
But since none of us want to be seen as biased it’s infinitely easier to spin the needle of blame and run. Most social progress is glacial, but once it leaks the dam breaks and the sentiment floods our newspapers, Web sites, and psyches.
And the idea that NFL teams are allergic to distractions is hardly novel. Why doesn’t Tim Tebow have a job? He made the playoffs and beat my beloved black & gold, when the Steelers were favored by a touchdown. You honestly think Tebow can’t be a third-stringer for some forlorn franchise? The truth is teams are just worried about the massive, frothing congregation that Tebow tugs to every game he plays. It’s a reasonable but inconvenient concern to the PC Police.
The problem is more with us than the media. We set the bass line, produce the sporting beat before the media inserts the lyrics. But it’s easy to brand our society as a gaggle of automatons eager to be pulled by the collar by the omnipotent media. The reverse is true. The media puts out what we want.
The more important point vis-a-vis Michael Sam is our willingness to end this homophobic omerta we’ve cemented over the decades, if not centuries, regarding people we find on the fringe. It’s all an adjunct of our ignorance. And, at least in the case of Sam, we are just a little more enlightened. And that’s a good thing.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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