A group of codgers at the local Starbucks was discussing the Michael Sam kiss seen ‘round the world today, and it was clear that they didn’t like what they saw. The general theme: Did they really need to show us that?
Similar sentiments were on my Facebook news feed. One friend posted a message congratulating the St. Louis Rams for selecting Sam, the 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year, in the seventh round of the 2014 NFL Draft. A friend of his, a conservative church pastor, expressed mild outrage over the pick, then made things worse in attempting to backtrack, trying to temper his outrage over Michael Sam by blaming the media for pushing stories like Michael Sam and Donald Sterling being a racist on an unsuspecting and otherwise disinterested (if not disapproving) public.
At this point late Saturday night, arguing on Facebook, as happens from time to time, I knew only that Sam had been drafted by the Rams; I hadn’t yet seen the footage from ESPN from the draft-viewing party that had Sam’s reaction to the phone call he received from the team notifying him that they were taking him, which included a series of kisses on the lips of his boyfriend, a former University of Missouri swimmer, Vito Cammisano.
The word from the periphery of the Sam-Cammisano camp is that the kisses were not planned, and were wholly spontaneous. Which makes sense: we’ve seen literally dozens of these moments on NFL Draft TV coverage before, including this weekend, the key difference being the players in every other instance were kissing their girlfriends, not their boyfriends.
My guess is there wouldn’t have been outrage had ESPN had a camera at, say, AJ McCarron’s draft party, and he planted a few on the lips of Katherine Webb after his phone call from the Cincinnati Bengals. There would have been attention, no doubt. (Think Musberger, Brent.)
Obviously what we have here is an issue related to comfort levels among a probably sizable portion of our population at seeing two men kiss, and then a bigger issue seeing a large, virile male athlete kiss another man. Increasing acceptance of same-sex relationships and poll numbers showing a majority of Americans supporting gay marriage are all well and good, but two men, one of them an NFL football player, kissing, yeah, wow, that’s pushing the line.
Indeed it is pushing the line, in a good way. I’d bet that even a good number of those who say they support same-sex marriage in theory had some sort of private negative reaction at least at first to the footage of the kiss. Mainstream media, meaning news, sports and network TV, doesn’t offer us much in the way of images of same-sex relationships beyond two men or two women hugging or holding hands. So to go from innocuous hugs or hand-holding to a kiss involving two men on live TV, one an NFL football player, and a big guy, too, a lineman, that’s what you can call America confronting itself.
That we by and large failed the first test shouldn’t be a surprise, but I’d submit that we shouldn’t condemn ourselves to eternal damnation for that first negative reaction. I kept thinking of Jackie Robinson and what he had to endure in 1947 when he broke the big-time sports color barrier. At first his own teammates were divided, but over time he won them over, then won over rivals and fans, and today we don’t think about race when it comes to participation in professional sports.
At some point into our future, no, not anytime soon, but even so, there will be a day when a college player drafted into the NFL or another major American sport kissing his boyfriend at getting the call noting his ascension into the exclusive club of that sport will not be considered news.
We won’t realize the significance of what is going on at that moment, but that very fact, that these kinds of moments will pass us blissfully unaware of any implications, will itself be significant.
In the meantime, though, yeah, since somebody asked, turns out that they really did need to show us that.
– Column by Chris Graham