Maybe the best thing this week about the soon-to-be first openly gay NFL player Michael Sam was not his brave act of coming out, but the surprising reaction that the revelation has received from the most unexpected of places: The NFL itself and its players. While there have been a few pockets of resistance (former Jets coach Herm Edwards, for instance) and some Internet trollery looking for a fight where there is none, for the most part, the consensus among the players that have spoken out so far has been 1) it’s not that big of a deal, and 2) of course we can accept a gay player into the locker room, and it’s a little insulting for you to assume otherwise.
The biggest surprise to me, however, is in how accepting the commentary on sports radio and tv has been this week. Sports shows are populated with mostly older, macho man’s men (often former players and announcers) who spend three-to-four hour shifts a day bickering, making a fuss over the tiniest of controversies, and yelling at their callers. In other words, they are tasked with turning sports into soap operas for men. I listen to sports radio way more than I should. I live in New England, and even here, sports talk radio is a fairly conservative outlet (my favored station out of Boston is is not above taking potshots at Obama, and they must have uttered the word “thug” at least 47,000 times the week after Richard Sherman’s outburst in the NFC Championship game).
And yet, the other day, my wife — who usually abhors it when she starts her car and it’s still set on sports talk radio — came home from work, and instead of complaining that I’d left the station on again, there were tears streaming down her face. She was overcome by how profoundly accepting the sports talk radio hosts were being of Michael Sam (it was Salk & Holley on WEEI, for locals). Instead of agreeing with the idea that it’s OK to have a gay player in the NFL “as long as he doesn’t flaunt it,” they turned the argument on its head, and said a) if he didn’t share this information, and was “outed” later, people would surely blame him for “lying” or misrepresenting himself, and b) wait a second, straight players “flaunt” their sexuality all the time, by making innocuous statements about “my girlfriend/wife”, by holding hands or kissing in public, every time they get married. They talked about Matthew Shepard and about how dangerous it still is to be gay in some places; they said there are some men who would lose their jobs because of this revelation, and that’s not the case in the NFL. They said this isn’t about Sam wanting to “convert” anyone, or challenge anyone’s faith: this is a guy who just wants to be who he is and play football.
These are not novel statements, except in the world of traditional sports commentary, where arguments like that are being made practically around the clock this week. It has been so profound, there is a cynical part of me that believes that sports talk hosts have been delivered talking points by the NFL, asked to toe the line, to make this happen, to make it acceptable, because that’s the smartest play for the NFL. These are the people the hardest of the hardcore NFL fans will listen to. NFL fans (including myself) often echo the very talking points they hear on the radio, so there’s no one better to get inside the minds of conservative NFL fans and plant those seeds of acceptance, and for a group that — on the whole — is not typically known for eloquence, the sports talk hosts that I’ve heard lately have been remarkably profound on the topic, delivering hour-long sermons, interrupted only by boner pill commercials and work-at-home scams.
One of the best examples of this I’ve seen was actually on local news. Here’s Dale Hansen, a sports anchor on one of the highest rated local newscasts in the heart of conservative America: Dallas, Texas. He is also a sports talk radio host on the flagship station of the Dallas Cowboys. He’s old. He’s white. He lives in Texas by way of Iowa, and superficially, he’s one of the last people you might think would be arguing in favor of equality for gays not just in sports, but in life.
Wow. You see that corner in your rear-view mirror? America just f*cking turned it.