Sunday night, Michael Sam made history.
The college football standout and likely NFL draft pick publicly acknowledged that he is gay, which would make him the first athlete in a major American sport to announce he is gay at the very beginning of his career.
Sam’s announcement is already one of the biggest stories this year, surpassing interest even in the Olympics. But the timing of his announcement could make it one of the biggest cultural stories of the decade.
Some of you might be trying to figure out why this story matters in an age in which the president of the United States is on the record supporting same-sex marriage, and NBA player Jason Collins came out as gay a year ago. But Sam’s story will likely have a far more significant impact than either of these milestones. Here’s why:
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President Barack Obama certainly has a measure of influence, particularly among black audiences. When he first ran for president, data showed an “Obama effect” among black test-takers whose scores markedly improved when he won. But influencing test scores in a condensed time frame is very different from having a long-term impact on community behavior. For instance, so far there is no data to suggest the image of the president’s nuclear family, comprised of two married parents raising their children and two dogs together, has significantly altered the landscape within the black community – in which single parenthood has become the norm. That is simply to say that altering social behavior is a tall order for any one person, but it might be particularly tough for a president.
People look to presidents for guidance on a host of issues. Whether or not our nation should go to war, for instance, or whether a drastic overhaul of our nation’s health-care system makes sense. Rarely do we look to our presidents to guide our personal behavior. All of the civil rights legislation President Lyndon Johnson helped pass certainly mattered in the lives of African-Americans. But the white Americans in the real world, who attended school with black Americans and realized their worlds did not fall apart following integration, ultimately mattered more.
You know who else mattered just as much as Lyndon Johnson or the laws? Jackie Robinson, Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. – the mainstream black celebrities who helped alter perceptions about black people in a way the president at the time could not. Their cultural influence had an impact no politician could touch.
This is why Michael Sam’s coming out matters more in some ways than Obama’s comments on LGBT rights, as significant as they have been. While people look to the president for leadership, few look to him to define masculinity. Instead many look to athletes for that, particularly in the black community.
The roots of homophobia in the black community remain embedded in this antiquated notion of what it means to be a man, but specifically a black man. Instead of this idea being tied to qualities like respecting women or taking care of any kids they father, manhood is somehow still largely portrayed, at least in imagery, as how physically strong men are and which women they can bed.
Sam has now permanently rocked that definition – in a way that no black man and no black athlete before him ever has. Collins came out, but – no disrespect to him – he did it at what was widely perceived as the end of his career, when there was no risk of leaving any real money on the table.
Sam, on the other hand, is confronting American homophobia squarely between the eyes. He is forcing the fans of one of the most macho sports ever played to ask themselves the questions they’ve been able to avoid for decades: Will they refuse to cheer for an extremely talented player who can help their team win simply because he is more likely to find another player more attractive than he finds one of the cheerleaders? Would teammates rather play with a less talented player and lose for the same reason?
Perhaps the biggest question: If Sam can play with the best, how can anyone, anywhere, define him as less than a man? And if he is just as much of a man as the men competes against on the field, then what exactly is the point of homophobia?
These are questions Obama and Collins couldn’t force sports fans to ask. But after Michael Sam’s statement there are African-American men and boys who will have that conversation. And maybe, after those conversations, homophobia will be closer to our past than a present.