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Why Michael Sam and Jason Collins matter

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In an age where people shrug and say "It's no big deal, just keep it to yourself" I'm here to explain why sexuality matters ... and how sports can overcome homophobia.

Michael Sam
Michael Sam
Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

It was one of those late night TNT games during the forgettable 2013-14 Nuggets season that I finally understood what "being yourself" meant.

The Brooklyn Nets were in town, and the Nuggets were about to lose by a ridiculous amount (scoring eight points in the first quarter ... ugh) but none of that seemed to matter. As I sat in the press lounge at Pepsi Center before the game, I was ... nervous. This was in large part, if not entirely because I wanted to see, and talk, to Jason Collins ... the end-of-bench player for the Nets who had signed multiple 10-day contracts and was recently brought in for the rest of the season. He is gay, and this was huge.

Collins mattered to me because as someone who is himself homosexual it was just really cool to see. History in the making and it was coupled with (for my part) an enormous sense of pride. As I tried to get closer in the pre-game media scrum, I was thwarted by an enormous throng of reporters and cameras ... as well as the Nets, umm, interesting PR team. One individual resembled Harvey Kietel in Pulp Fiction ... actually acted like him too. All I could muster was some very poorly taken photos of Collins from the back. I didn't get my chance to talk to him then

I did later though.

****

There's something to be said about taking control of your own life. Owning your own narrative. Dictating terms of your personhood and not letting anyone tell you to shut up. When Missouri Tigers All American and SEC Player of the Year Michael Sam came out of the closet shortly after the college season ended (he had come out to his teammates the year before) he gained control of his life in a very public way. In many ways, the subsequent fallout from NFL types (Peter King's anonymous sources, and Tony Dungy's odd comments about "Distractions") has been about exerting that measure of "control" the NFL values so much back on to Michael Sam.

Make no mistake, becoming the first openly gay athlete to be drafted into a professional sports league is a monumental step in society. More than that though, Sam announcing his sexuality will go a very long way toward it NOT being a big deal in the future and the most important step was taking control of his sexuality before the NFL could "manage" it. We saw the overreaction in the Peter King anonymous scouts article, diminishing Sam's draft stock within a night of his announcement. The control elements within the NFL are so great, that if Sam came out while he was in the league, I wonder what those forces would do to crush it. Sam owning his sexuality pre-draft stripped that ability from those elements.

When I made the decision to come out many years ago, it was a part of what I would like to call a journey to self-acceptance. Too many times we are told to be something we aren't, simply for the comfort of others. Not enough is done to change the mind of those who are uncomfortable.

Much of the reaction from those who'd rather not deal with the fact of homosexuality is "Who cares? Just keep it to yourself" or some variation therein. This is a narrative that is based in the fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of coming out of the closet in sports. It defies a very nasty stereotype that has been culturally ingrained into most societies worldwide. That gay men aren't tough enough, and that the implication that you are gay means something less than manly (to put it kindly). For some reason people can't put the image of sports, toughness, competition and the lot ... and match that image with the stereotypical view of homosexuality. It's unfair. I've fought that stereotype for most of my adult life.

Michael Sam shattered that stereotype (earning Co Defensive Player of the Year in the SEC a year after he came out to his college teammates) and I'm relatively certain that has contributed to the weird reaction he has received both inside and outside the NFL. The reactions of the likes of Dungy, and others are the result of retreating back to your comfort zone. Stay quiet and keep the status quo. Don't draw attention to yourself, otherwise you'll make me uncomfortable. The "team" won't like it. They sit in the comfort of their stereotypes because the realization that you can be gay and "tough" and compete at a high level doesn't compute. Using buzzwords like "distractions" under the guise of protecting the team ... when in reality they are protecting themselves.

In reality what Sam is doing is extremely brave in a sports culture that has a very, very long way to go. People look at the likes of Johnny Weir and point out his flamboyance, but forget (or don't acknowledge) that his training regimen is right up there with the best pro-athletes in any sport, let alone figure skating.  If you follow him on Instagram ...amidst the fashion, the dogs and outre behavior, you will see someone who trains HARD and likely has the best core in professional sports. Don't let your preconceived notion of humanity interfere with one hell of an athlete.

Coming out of the closet is essential. It speaks to the very real fact that homosexuals have competed in all sports throughout it's history. Coming out means that you have to accept its reality, and can't conveniently lock it away and pretend that it's not there. This is the only way everyone will be accepted for who they are, rather than box them in to a place where you can label them per your own comfort or interpretation of religion.

I've faced this in a miniscule level compared to the likes of Sam. I can't help but look on at him in admiration for taking control of his own life before others took control of him. Regardless of how he turns out as a pro in the NFL, he took THAT leap. That ... well, it's incredible to me. I wish him the best of luck, and no doubt at all it will be an uphill battle for him ... but in the end, the likes of Tony Dungy can't overcome the likes of Michael Sam.

****

After the Nuggets were annihilated at Pepsi Center that cold February night, we in the media schlepped out and wrapped up as we usually do. We made our way to a rather somber Nuggets locker room, spoke to the players who would have rather been anywhere but there, and then began the journey out. Games become routine in the NBA, and at the end of February ... you can't get any more routine than this.

Jason Collins did end up playing and it wasn't exactly an inspiring performance in garbage in on his part. However, he did his job and I couldn't care less if he was good or bad. It was a great moment regardless ...

I stopped in at the Pepsi Center lounge and grabbed the first quarter stats as a souvenir, because hey ... you only see a team score 8 points in the first quarter every so often. As I sauntered across the media lounge to get a drink of water before I left, I noticed Jason Collins come in on his way to enter  one of the adjoining media rooms. He was apparently speaking with Matthew Shepherd's parents ... in what was a very nice gesture for all. He was surrounded by a couple of the Nets PR contingent. Realizing it was my last chance to speak with him, I said "Hey Jason!" He looked over. I smiled, nodded, and managed to say "Thank you" right as we walked in. He nodded appreciation and went on his way...

That was a cool moment for me. How long before those cool moments become the norm? With pioneers like Jason Collins and Michael Sam, we are one step closer to that point. It won't matter anymore, not because people want you to be quiet, but because you are accepted.