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Column: Michael Sam deserves to be considered among pioneering athletes

Let’s clear something up.

After Michael Sam became the first openly gay player in the NFL earlier this month, and a video of him getting the news and kissing his boyfriend went viral, there was backlash against what was perceived as a double standard. Specifically, some complain that Sam has been made a hero for being openly gay, while Tim Tebow, that guy we keep talking about even though he’s not in the league anymore, was mocked for being openly Christian. In general, critics argue, this comparison shows that society celebrates and protects queer people while vilifying those who are proud of their Christian faith.

These views were expressed in a column, clipped from a newspaper, stripped of a byline, photocopied and posted on the first floor of Frist Campus Center, titled “Free speech not so free when discussing gay rights.” Though it was posted anonymously and without any indication of who had written it, a Google search showed that it was syndicated columnist Cal Thomas.

First, let’s examine how the First Amendment right to free speech works. The column cited the “political correctness police” who fined a Miami Dolphins player for tweeting “OMG” and “horrible” after he saw the video of Sam. Thomas and any who agree with him would do well to brush up on their U.S. politics. The U.S. government had nothing to do with reprimanding that player, and therefore his right to free speech has not been infringed upon. No form of “police” came to get him: he was punished, for what I’ll charitably call a thoughtless comment, by his superiors, who were exercising their rights as well. As an American and a college journalist, I’m all about free speech, but infringing on free speech is what happens when the government blocks a book from being published or shuts down a lawful protest, not when a privately-owned football team rebukes its employee or when a TV channel fires someone for tarnishing its image.

Anyway, and more to the point: Michael Sam is a hero. The article I found in Frist said that “the media and those in the gay rights movement” were treating Sam “as the equivalent of an early American pioneer.” Assuming they are, is that so unreasonable?

Thomas and those who agree with him are either willfully ignoring or, I hope, coming from a place where they don’t witness discrimination against gays, but it’s irresponsible of them to write as if it doesn’t happen. A hyper-masculinized sport like football can all too often allow for gay-bashing. Do people think it’s a coincidence that the NFL has been around since 1920 and no player felt comfortable admitting he was a homosexual until 2014? There have been gay players before, but the culture of the NFL has prevented them from coming out until after they retired.

And can we stop with the Tim Tebow comparison? I fully admit that Tebow was mocked for being religious and that that is wrong. As a Christian, I do feel that God has better things to do than help the Broncos to the playoffs — and as a Chargers fan, I wish He wouldn’t — and that He would have loved Tebow even if he hadn’t kneeled down in the end zone, but it’s not my place to judge him. People practice differently, and nobody should feel uncomfortable expressing their faith. The fact is, though, that Tebow was revered by many people. Maybe he was mocked on “Saturday Night Live,” but his jersey was among the highest-selling in the NFL, even during his disastrous season with the New York Jets.

When he was mocked, as even some of his supporters admitted, it was for being ostentatious, not for simply being Christian. It was also largely due to the fact that, as his career went on, he went from being a prodigy to one of the bigger busts in recent memory. With a career completion percentage of below 50 and an average of fewer than 70 yards per game — just 3.3 in the last of his three NFL seasons — he would have been the butt of many jokes even if there had been nothing remarkable about his personality.

The column I found in Frist called out commentators for saying Tebow had “baggage,” but he absolutely did. The dude was a hyped up athlete who happened to also be outspoken, and the harder they fall, the more of a media circus will inevitably surround them. Plus, let’s be real: he had baggage, but if he had been good enough, teams would have overlooked the controversy surrounding his off-the-field life. See LewisRay.

Finally, the views he was expressing were that of Christianity, the faith of the vast majority — 78 percent — of Americans and, although I admit I can’t find numbers, certainly the majority of the NFL. Count the number of times players point to God after making a good play or the number of times they thank God in interviews.

Compare that with Sam’s situation. A good estimate still proves elusive — and let’s be clear, that’s largely because of how difficult it still is for people to come out of the closet — but the Williams Institute puts the number of queer Americans at 11 percent of the population, with just 3.5 percent identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual. I think it’s safe to say that Tebow, as a Christian, is a part of the overwhelming majority of Americans, while Sam, as a gay man, is part of a minority.

An oppressed minority, at that. Michael Sam is still not allowed to marry another man in all but 18 states. Over half the country now supports gay marriage, but that number is likely under 60 percent. I don’t have nearly enough space here to get into how much discrimination and abuse gay people face on a daily basis, but the point is that Michael Sam should be compared to Jackie Robinson, not Tim Tebow.

Those who mistreated Tim Tebow because of his religious views were wrong to do so, but it is ridiculous to compare his situation to that of Michael Sam. Tebow was expressing a particularly evangelical version of the majority’s views, while Sam is a member of a still oppressed and relatively small minority. Tebow could have used better blocking during his time in the NFL, but he didn’t need defending. Happily, Sam does seem to have been welcomed by the league and by fans, but we can’t let this reception fool us into thinking that he doesn’t face adversity because of who he is. People who write that Sam has it easy and that this case has exposed a “cultural double standard” have the constitutional right to say so, but they are wrong. The man is walking into completely uncharted territory, and he’s doing so in the face of all kinds of adversity, just one of which is this talk of imagined double standards. That’s enough to make him a pioneer in my book.

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