Though the drafting of Michael Sam into the NFL is being portrayed everywhere as the beginning of something, it is more importantly an end.
If all goes to plan, Sam will become the second openly gay male athlete to play in a major team sport. I count five qualifiers in that previous sentence. We’re getting well past the point of groundbreaking on this particular score.
As he was being picked by the St. Louis Rams, cameras focused in on Sam sobbing deeply. Then he turned and kissed his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano.
And then … nothing.
Nobody who matters bucked publicly. There was no measurable groundswell of anger or disappointment. Without any bigots to shout down, the celebrations felt contrived.
We’ve all (thankfully) moved past the point where a guy kissing a guy on live television has the capacity to shock. This proves a larger point – that change isn’t gauged by the reactions of the cheerleaders at either extreme, but through those of the majority in the middle that just stop caring.
Nobody cares any more about gay men in sports. A critical mass of us has grown up. We’re cool with whatever.
On an elemental level, sport is about integration. In an increasingly secular society, it provides the trappings of religion. In order to matter outside the box score, it needs a holy mission.
The Michael Sam story is an end because it leaves sport without a significant issue of social justice or integration to focus on. That is an untenable vacuum. It will eventually be filled by something.
My best guess? The complete gender integration of sports.
It’s the only remaining gap. Half the population plays on one side; half on the other (if at all).
We’ve tiptoed around this idea for a while: Billie Jean King, Hayley Wickenheiser, Shannon Szabados.
A French second-league soccer team just hired a female manager. This year’s U.S. Open golf championship will be run back-to-back on the same course, women following the men. Formula 1 will probably get its first regular female driver by next season.
Those efforts feel less and less like stunts as time goes by. We’ve stopped arguing about whether women can play against men, and started arguing about whether they should.
Those examples also avoid the differences of size and strength that make it difficult for most women to compete physically with most men. That’s the next step.
We’ll know this has gotten serious when people begin suggesting women deserve to play alongside men in major team sports. If the issues of race and sexual orientation are our guide, that’s the finish line.
From this vantage, it sounds ridiculous. You would not find a single current athlete willing to endorse the idea in, say, the NHL or the NFL. (They would probably have the good sense not to openly mock it, either. If there is any running theme to our times, it is a widespread awareness that they are constantly changing.)
It was likewise impossible to find a single pro willing to stick their hand up for Jackie Robinson in the mid-1940s. They were all dragged into the idea, despite our efforts to lionize some of them after the fact.
And if you’d told someone 20 years ago that two men would be kissing on the NFL Network during draft coverage, he’d have said, “What’s the NFL Network?” He wouldn’t have bothered to address the likelihood of the other thing.
These crusades all start from a point of impossibility. That’s why they’re crusades.
However, I’m convinced it will happen. First, because of sport’s extropic need to engulf an expanding array of competitors.
Second, and far more importantly, because of money. In order to truly invest in something, you need to see yourself in it. Team sports continue to leave half their audience dangling, only half involved. Owners will embrace radical change if it radically improves their bottom line.
This won’t happen quickly or seamlessly. It would require a huge shift in the way most sports are played. But rulebooks are not written on stone tablets.
And, hey, I played baseball on the weekend with a team that was made up mainly of women. The only difference between that and the major leagues is conceptual.
Hockey, in particular, could be susceptible. The sport is stuck at No. 4 on the continent, and will at some point be lapped by soccer.
Its most pressing existential issue is brain injury, and violence more generally. A move to take hitting out of hockey dovetails perfectly with a move to integrate women onto big-league rosters. And just think of the press that’d get.
I get that you’re reading this and thinking, “He’s either kidding or he’s just wrong.”
No to the former and an admitted yes to the latter.
But I take refuge in one idea – that things never stay the same. Change only seems inevitable well after the unlikely becomes our new normal.