There will not be a gay Jackie Robinson.
It can’t happen. It won’t happen.
Jackie Robinson did not chose to break the color barrier. He was chosen. Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers made the very conscious decision to integrate baseball. He didn’t have much support from the league or the other teams, but he was determined to have negro players play in the major leagues because he knew they were good enough.
Rickey and the Dodgers were diligent to find the “right” player. A player with the skill and temperament to excel on the field and off. The Dodgers gave Robinson a contract and they protected him throughout the process. Brooklyn orchestrated every aspect of Jackie’s assent from the Negro Leagues to the Majors. Richey knew the pressure was on him as much as on Robinson. Perhaps more. The grand experiment had to work.
Of course we know it did. Larry Doby followed in the American League less than three months after Jackie. In just a few years, the majors were integrated.
Michael Sam chose to be the first openly gay football player to attempt to play professional football. Because the NFL has a draft, his decision meant he was flying solo in his journey to the shield. He knew he would have to be trailblazer without the benefit of a general manager hiring him a body man and driver. He wouldn’t have the benefit of a team’s PR team orchestrating his assent from the University of Missouri to the National Football League. Sam knew the risks, he knew the rewards. His announcement on February 9, 2014 was a game changer not only for him, for the LGBT community, for the NFL and for society.
Following his announcement, debates raged. Support for him grew as well as the homophobia. For every step forward for equality it seemed there were a few steps backward. Sam was projected as a third to fifth round draft pick and he slid to the St. Louis Rams in the seventh. Was it because he was gay or a tweener? That debate continues. Michael became the most watched and talked about last-round pick in the history of the NFL. His preseason numbers were solid but on a team extremely deep at defensive lineman, he was a victim of a numbers game. Credit coach Jeff Fisher and the entire Rams organization for treating Michael like the football player he is from draft day to final-cut day.
Following his release from the Rams, the waiver watch was on. Would he be signed to 53-man roster? No. Would he be signed to a practice squad (I still love the old term Taxi Squad)?
But then…late today the news out of Big D was the Cowboys were bringing Sam to Jerry’s World for a physical with the intention of signing him to their practice squad. Another day, another chapter in the story of Michael Sam.
On the social side, Dallas seems like an odd fit. It’s in a conservative state. It’s a southern town in a religious state. Texas is not one of the most LGBT friendly states.
On the football side, it makes total sense. They play a 4-3 defensive scheme. Michael Sam can play in the NFL. They need help. Jerry Jones loves the attention on his beloved ‘Boys.
Jones is not Branch Rickey. He didn’t set out to break any barriers or socially change the NFL. But like Rickey, Jerry Jones loves to win. America’s team looks a lot more like America with Michael Sam on it.
I covered the last Rams preseason in Miami. I was hired to be on Michael Sam watch. He had a solid game. 4.5 tackles in the first-half in limited time. In the second-half he only had one tackle as the Dolphins offense ran away from his side of the line. After the game, I listened to Fisher’s comments. I had a gut feeling Sam had played his last game in St. Louis.
After the game there were more than twenty reporters questioning Michael about his night, his camp and his chances of making it in the NFL. About his play in the four exhibitions Michael said, “I did everything I could. It’s out of my hands. I’m at the NFL mercy…I’m very confident I’m going to sleep very well tonight and I’m very confident I’m going to be on a team – the Rams or any other team in the NFL.”
When the cameras turned off and the crowd exited the locker room, I spoke to Michael for a few minutes. I found him to be a very humble young man simply trying to fulfill a dream. I wished him luck and asked him for an apology. He looked at me with a puzzled look and then I told him I was a Georgia Bulldog and he killed me with the fumble return for a touchdown last season when Mizzou visited Athens. He laughed, I laughed. We took a selfie.
Michael Sam is every bit as important and brave as Jackie Robinson. Regardless the career that Sam has, he has accomplished so much. I still stand by prediction that he will have a longer career than Johnny Manziel.
He has given hope to the gay community that in the bastion of pro sports a gay man can contribute in the “manliest.” He has given hope to those that see equality as a right. He has given hope that all SEC Co-defensive Players of the Year can make it in the NFL.
I once asked the question but I now know the answer. There will never be a gay Jackie Robinson.
There will always be Michael Sam.