Rewiring Sports for a New Generation of Athletes
For some unfortunate reason, when things don't go our way, we tend to gravitate toward finding and assigning blame, immediately.
I currently live in a house that was built in 1928. My house is old. All attempts to sync technology with my home have been challenging. Most walls are plaster, unwelcoming to nails. Every time I try to hang artwork, I hear chunks of plaster fall behind the wall, as a nail dangles at 45-degrees. When I change a light switch, disintegrated wire coating is revealed. Since my house is old, it's not easily compatible with change. I am a fool to blame the plaster if I am unable to hang a mirror. If I were to buy a modern home lighting & electronics system in hopes of controlling it remotely from my iPhone—I might be naive to believe that the system would work without potential for significant rewiring, reconstruction.
People are like wires, too. We are conduits. Some are heavy-duty extension cords, able to handle significant activity, while others have limited capacity. Just as I would not rely on an extension cord found in my living room to operate a two-megawatt generator, I do not expect a 65-year-old owner of an NFL team to be naturally as understanding, as accepting of the concept of a gay player on his payroll. Furthermore, I do not expect a player in his twenties, raised with religious beliefs that denounce homosexuality to be as understanding, accepting of a gay teammate as somebody who has gay friends or family, fearless of catching some disease.
Since Michael Sam came out publicly this Sunday, we have witnessed countless shots fired between gay rights advocates and those who do not support equality. I see anger. I see fear. I see a conflicted society. For what, though?
New York Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas told the New York Post that he’s concerned an openly gay player will disrupt team chemistry, make some players uncomfortable. “I can’t speak for the NFL or our team or the locker room, I just know what goes on and what type of situation it’s going to put a lot of guys in," he told the paper. "It puts a lot of pressure on certain people who don’t want to be in that situation.” While these statements are offensive, to say the least, I understand what Thomas is attempting to communicate. I also imagine that Thomas hasn't spent much time thinking of the type of “situation it’s going to (and, has forever) put a lot of guys in” when it comes to the players who happen to be gay—or have remained closeted. “Me being a follower of Christ and a strong Christian, obviously that’s a sin and I definitely don’t believe in [homosexuality],” Thomas told the Post. “It’s tough when you are put in this position." Well, Terrell, medicine is not supposed to taste good. For anybody.
Like a younger generation responsible to teach seemingly unwilling grandparents how to navigate Facebook (or their own internalized bigotry), we have to show compassion and tolerance for those who do not understand what it means to be gay. Whether it is dealing with a man of generations past who owns an NFL team, or a player who seems out of touch with a progressive, equal society, we must recognize that we are no better than they are, but that we have an opportunity to bring them on board. We should not blame Terrell Thomas for feeling as he does; these are his beliefs. We must recognize that our way of thought is not the only way. No man is immune to a need for tolerance. If we expect others to listen to us, we must be willing to hear them.
As Americans, we wonder how terrorists see our way of life as evil. Bigotry is a result of ignorance. Ignorance is erased by eduction. Because we can’t effectively communicate the concept of freedom by dropping flyers from the sky, we tend to levy bombs and missiles instead. This is called war, a result of conflicting beliefs, usually based in religion. War—the most severe form of communication and retaliation—opposed to say, football. A game. An activity. A sport, where people join forces to try to outscore their opponents.
We must understand that great change, a paradigm shift in thought, takes considerable time. When I came out, I wanted everybody to be on board, happy for me and accepting of who I am. While it was frustrating at first, in time I learned that we cannot force our beliefs on others, expecting them to see the light, immediately.
Jackie Robinson is one of our great American sports heroes. Branch Rickey, too. Were they celebrated at first? Did fans in Boston who cheered Bill Russell through one NBA title after another feel so rosy about this player who looked different—when he first arrived? Some say that winning cures all? I believe that winning makes it easier to forget what was previously believed to be a "problem." Should it take Michael Sam making a game-winning play that sends his team to the Super Bowl for skeptical or homophobic players, owners, and management to accept him as an equal? We'll have to wait and see.
The next time you're bothered by a quote or soundbite from somebody rationalizing why the NFL isn't ready for a gay player, ask yourself how you could educate this person. How could you rewire an antiquated system to be compatible with today’s world? What would you say that would make a detractor understand your point, without firing shots at his beliefs? It is all about education. One society. One family. One team.
Jared Max is a sportsbroadcaster and the former host of "Maxed Out" on ESPN New York. More at JaredMax.com