Michael Sam, And The Black (And Gay) Politics Of Being “Twice As Good”
The analogy many gay rights activists and allies have made between their fight for equal rights and the Black American’s fight for civil rights is flawed, but I understand why it’s made. It’s a natural comparison, but it breaks down when considering that (most) Blacks can’t blend in. In America, Blackness is conspicuous, and this conspicuousness allows for the bias to be more pervasive and panoramic. Pointing this out doesn’t minimize the struggles and fight of the gay community. It just recognizes it’s two completely separate battles with some similarities.
One of these similarities is playing out in front of us with Michael Sam, who was recently cut by the St. Louis Rams, and has gone three days now without any NFL team picking him up, and apparently will not be asked to join the Rams practice squad.
To be fair, Sam may still get picked up by an NFL team. It might even happen before I finish writing this. In fact, the ESPN ticker tells me he’s being invited to Dallas to try out for the Cowboys. But it’s not official yet, and considering his talent and production level, his story reminds me of a story my dad shared with me a few times.
My dad grew up in New Castle, Pa, a small town roughly an hour north of Pittsburgh. He was a high school student in the early 60s, and he remembers an unwritten policy carried by the basketball team. Black players were allowed on the team. You could even be a star. But, you were not going to be Black and ride the bench. Basically, you couldn’t be Black and be average. If you were Black with starter or star talent, you made the team. If you were Black with bench warmer talent, you’d be better off trying out for the YMCA league.
This policy’s existence is no surprise to anyone who either grew up in that era or had/has parents and grandparents who did, and it’s an accurate synopsis of the politics of prejudice. True progress isn’t Jackie Robinson making the Brooklyn Dodgers. It’s the .220 Black hitter with the above average arm making the Dodgers. It’s not a superstar openly gay athlete making a roster. It’s a team deciding a below-average openly gay player is worth keeping, is worth the distraction his gayness provides.
Scandal‘s Rowan Pope, father of Olivia Pope, put it best:
“You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have”
Michael Sam, still unemployed NFL free agent, would probably agree.