Rick Sanchez: Michael Sam’s Behavior Was An Affront To The NFL Culture

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Missouri linebacker Michael Sam, who was just drafted by the St. Louis Rams, happens to be gay. In this day and age, that’s no longer a big deal. What matters – and should matter – to all of us is how good a football player he is. But during the NFL draft, Michael Sam chose to change the subject from football to his sexual orientation — and his selfish, immature grandstanding literally took the cake.

Seen through the prism of the NFL, the issue I have with Sam’s behavior is that it was his way of saying, “the rules don’t apply to me.” And how can the NFL do or say anything about it without now appearing homophobic?

— Rick Sanchez

Many people reading this are probably thinking, “What’s the big deal? He licked cake off someone’s face. So what.” Well, this goes beyond slobber and frosting on someone’s face. It has to do with the image that straight Americans hold of gay Americans. It has to do with trying to dispel stereotypes of gay people and eliminating the bigotry they face (no pun intended).

Far from this “cake incident” being a byproduct of his celebrating, I believe this was an intentional and calculated move by Michael Sam to create hype and get coverage for one reason and one reason only: selfish self-promotion. In so doing, Sam not only made a spectacle of himself, but actually set back the cause of the LGBT movement.

Why do I say that? Well, let’s go through it.

The Pre-Draft Announcement

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First, before the draft, Sam chose to announce to the world that he is gay. It’s a bit out of form when you consider that college football players – gay or straight – usually don’t reveal their marital status or their dating habits (unless, of course, a nosy media reveals it for them). Generally, players are schooled on “not creating distractions” for fear it will hurt their chances of getting drafted. And the NFL, believe it or not, is downright prudish about players garnering the wrong kind of attention. Why did Sam feel compelled to share what others typically do not? Did Sam do it for pre-draft publicity? Maybe. But I gave him the benefit of the doubt, believing that he perhaps wanted to preempt this later becoming a story, to preempt criticism or bigotry. In light of everything else that happened, one has to wonder if Sam was setting the stage for what was to come.

Johnny Football

Second, there was draft day. It is the day when young men nervously await to find out if they will be selected to play professional football. It used to be that no one watched the draft or even cared to cover it except newspapers, but it’s now become a live broadcast spectacle on both ESPN and the NFL’s own network. Agents warn their players not to do or say anything on camera that will hurt their chances of making the team that chooses them.

A perfect example of this was evidenced by the draft’s marquis figure this year, a skinny kid named Johnny Manziel. The Texas A&M player was chosen by Cleveland. He smartly failed to take the bait when asked by reporters if he planned to start for the team.

“No, I’m just going there to compete,” he humbly responded. It must have been torturous for a brash and successful player like Manziel to respond that way. But in a sport where first impressions and locker room chemistry can make the difference between millions of dollars or a ticket back home, it was well played. Prior to being chosen, the diminutive Manziel was the unquestioned heavyweight of draft day. The camera caught his every move as he appeared both nervous and agitated at not being chosen until the end of the first round. But when he finally was picked, he pulled himself together and did his family and his university proud.

Draft Day Kiss

Compare that to Sam. He also seemed anxious before being picked. After all, he also had a family and university to make proud. But for him, there was more. When Sam’s moment came, if it came, he would likely make millions of gay Americans proud by letting the world know that being gay is, in many ways, no different than being straight. It was a teaching moment for the country: who he chooses to love doesn’t make him different than other players. He could have shown that he was just as professional, just as even-keeled, just as deserving as every other person in the draft. And like the other historical “firsts” that came before him, he would need to avoid, at all costs, what coaches call “showboating.” Legendary are the stories of baseball’s first black player, Jackie Robinson, and his reserved – almost boring – “nose to the grindstone” demeanor. He never gave his haters any ammunition.

But Michael Sam, on the other hand, seemed determined to undermine his own cause. When he was chosen by St. Louis and the camera zoomed in for all the world to see how this young man would carry himself, he chose to play out what seemed a publicity-fueled act by repeatedly kissing his partner on national television. Most young draftees hug their moms and may follow it with an acknowledgement of their partner, most often with a hug or quick peck on the cheek or on the lips. But Sam and his partner went into full-blown public affection that seemed destined to continue until the start of rookie mini-camp. A bit much? Compared to what other rookies do, the answer is undoubtedly yes.

The Cake Suck

Then, things really got weird. Almost as if he planned to capture all the attention the moment could muster, Michael Sam then spread cake on his partner’s face and began to lick it off. People – gay or straight – don’t even do that at weddings, let alone NFL drafts. It seemed that there was an element of going for shock value: if the sight of two men together deep-kissing wasn’t enough for some Americans, then Sam was going to make sure he really drove it home by “cake sucking” for all the world to see.

Hurting the Cause

There are two problems with Sam’s behavior. The first is seeing it through the prism of the NFL; the second is seeing it through the prism of the LGBT movement. Michael Sam could have made this a teaching moment for the country, showing that his sexuality was unimportant in comparison to his accomplishments and skill, and who he is as a football player. But instead, he made his sexuality the story.

Every workplace has a culture and rules (written and unwritten) of how to conduct oneself. At a startup, wearing jeans and a T-shirt to work every day might be perfectly acceptable. At an accounting firm, not so much. In the same way, there are rules of conduct in the NFL (both written and unwritten). The NFL is a league that reigns in “showboating” of any kind. They actually fine players who dance in the end zone after a touchdown. Many of Sam’s fans who aren’t necessarily football enthusiasts may not not that, but most of America does and by the way, so does Sam.

Sam’s behavior was an affront to the NFL’s culture. And it had nothing at all to do with his being gay. If a straight man got drafted on national television, then spread frosting on a woman only to then lick it off for all to see, I’d be writing how he embarrassed himself and the NFL and diminished the accomplishment of being drafted. But people are afraid to say the same about Sam for fear of being seen as homophobic. The double standard is not in talking about Michael Sam, but in avoiding talking about him and how he carried himself at the expense of other gay Americans who tweeted over the weekend about how disappointed they were in his spectacle. CNN, who spent the entire day reporting on the blowback, must have missed those tweets.

Seen through the prism of the NFL, the issue I have with Sam’s behavior is that it was his way of saying, “the rules don’t apply to me.” And how can the NFL do or say anything about it without now appearing homophobic?

That second prism – the prism of how straight Americans view gay Americans – is even more important.

A straight couple wouldn’t suck cake off each other while surrounded by cameras as families and children watch what is essentially a sports event. If they did, we would be just as surprised and shocked.

The gay community has fought to be treated equally, to be seen just like all Americans. And they should be!

Michael Sam had a unique opportunity to show just how alike gay and straight people really are. Instead, he did something that one would expect to see in an SNL parody of a gay football player, something no one would ever believe could happen in real life. Sam created (or at least fed into) the caricature of the flamboyant, outrageous gay man, feeding into an ugly and dangerous stereotype that needs to go away. And therein lies the problem. Sam took attention off the sport, off his accomplishments as an athlete, off the unimportance of his happening to be gay.

But Michael Sam probably doesn’t care because Michael Sam is probably not like most men (straight, gay or otherwise). Michael Sam is only interested in promoting Michael Sam, even if it means hurting the cause of other gay men for years to come, which is exactly what he’s done.