I’ve written many times before about my own ambivalent relationship with football. And, as we enter the second week of the regular season, my enthusiasm for my Seahawks is high after our great opening game, but my deep misgivings about the league and the institution have me at a low, and not just because of the case that everyone has been talking about this week.
First, let’s talk about Michael Sam…
Michael was the All-american University of Missouri football player who came out as gay last year. Then, despite being a finalist for many awards, and having been named All-American by the Walter Camp Football Foundation, the Associated Press, the Sporting News, the American Football Coaches Association, and the Football Writers Association of America, he almost wasn’t drafted by the NFL because some teams were reluctant to have an openly gay player. He was picked later in the draft than anyone (even his detractors) had predicted. He was also picked by a team that already had more than enough experienced players in his position.
But the St. Louis Rams gave him a chance. He performed well in the pre-season, but because the Rams had lots of Defensive Ends, no one was completely surprised when the let him go on the day all teams had to make final cuts.
What did surprise everyone was that no one else tried to sign him up right away. Rightwing news sites ran snarky op-ed pieces about how Sam had been “treated like everyone one else,” but us liberals were yelling that it was discrimination. But he wasn’t treated like everyone else. Every other defensive end who had made more than two quarterback sacks during the pre-season had been signed. Every other one. In fact, if you looked at any of the statistics of any of the other defensive ends in the pre-season, everyone with a record as good or just slightly worse than his had been signed.
It’s very hard to look at those statistics and not conclude that some factor other than his playing ability was behind everyone’s decision. As the headline of one of the sports columns I read said that week, “If the NFL doesn’t want to be called homophobic, they need to stop being homophobic.”
He lingered out there unsigned long enough for a few more rounds of dueling editorials, then the Dallas Cowboys signed him to their practice squad.
A bunch of wingnuts announced they were going to start protesting Cowboys’ games because this openly gay player is on their practice squad. Some of the religious conservative spokespeople have gone so far as to say that hiring Michael Sam is an act of discrimination against every other person in the nation.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys have spent much of the last year-and-a-half trying to fight a public relations problem because one of their Defensive Tackles was involved in a drunk driving accident in December 2012 in which another player was killed. In January a jury convicted Josh Brent of “intoxication manslaughter,” which normally carries a sentence of about 10 years (local law calls for a sentence of at least 2 years and as much as 20). Brent was sentenced to 180 days.
Read that again: killing someone in a drunk driving accident usually means being sent away for ten years, but he didn’t even get half a year.
And since his trial, the Cowboys have been negotiating with the rest of the League for a deal to allow Brent to come back. If he doesn’t get in trouble with the law during the next seven weeks, and meets certain other conditions, he can start practicing with the team. Three weeks after that, if he’s still staying out of trouble, he can start playing again.
The one drunk driving accident wasn’t Brent’s first brush with the law. He had been convicted of various drug and alcohol-related crimes before that accident, including at least one previous driving-under-the-influence ticket. And during his trial for the manslaughter charge, he violated the conditions of his bail several times, failing several sobriety tests due to high levels of both marijuana and alcohol in his blood.
None of these religious conservative folks have objected to the Cowboys bringing Josh Brent back. Last time I checked, those religions took a very dim view of drugs and alcohol. Also, not killing people is one of the ten commandments they claim to follow. Homosexuality is not mentioned in the ten commandments, at all—and a lot of the scriptures that usually are interpreted as being about homosexuality are debatable, but let’s leave that aside, for now. If these people really cared about the kind of role models football players are supposed to be, they would be much more upset about the drug- and alcohol-abusing killer then they would about one gay rookie.
Though, to be fair, if they did try to organize protests against every team that has members who have been convicted of drug- and alcohol-related crimes, or drunk driving, or assault, or aggravated assault, or rape, or videotaping a teammate raping a young girl, or manslaughter, or murder, or conspiracy to commit murder, they would have to be protesting at almost every NFL arena every week.
And that’s a lot of work.
No wonder the Baltimore Ravens thought they could get away with helping cover up Ray Rice’s brutal assault on his girlfriend. If the elevator video tape had never been released to the public, they would have gotten away with it, too. As it is, I’m not holding out much hope that his firing is going to turn into more than another slap on the wrist. (And yes, the Ravens are now telling anyone that will listen to them that they never saw this video, but not that many weeks ago they were telling anyone that would listen that they had seen the video and the video shows that he was simply defending himself. Apparently someone somewhere told them that the public would never see the footage. Oops.)
Cases like Josh Brent and Ray Rice leave a very sour taste in my mouth. They detract from my enjoyment of the game. And they raise troubling questions: does my watching Seahawks games and occasionally the Broncos and a few other teams make me an accessory to the crimes of jerks like Brent and Rice? How can I, as a fan, send a message to the league that excusing criminal and misogynist behavior is something they should stop doing?
I don’t have answers to those questions.
I do know that part of the tolerance for certain types of immoral and illegal behavior grows out of the misogynist, hyper-macho nature of this sport that I’ve written about before. And that same misogyny and distorted view of masculinity is at the heart of their homophobia, as well. They go hand in hand, and you can’t alleviate one without working on eliminating the other.
For now, I’m going to keep following my team. I’m going to check in on Michael Sam’s team, and hope that the first openly gay NFL player gets a chance to play during the regular season, and break down another barrier.
“I am delighted to have you play football. I believe in rough, manly sports. But I do not believe in them if they degenerate into the sole end of any one’s existence. I don’t want you to sacrifice standing well in your studies to any over-athleticism; and I need not tell you that character counts for a great deal more than either intellect or body in winning success in life. Athletic proficiency is a mighty good servant, and like so many other good servants, a mighty bad master.”
Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children