Photo by Richard Phibbs for Out
Like any good millennial, I awoke Saturday morning and immediately reached for my smartphone on the nearby nightstand to see if I had any new Facebook notifications. Turns out a high school classmate really liked one of my statuses.
Instinctively, I then went to the newsfeed section to see what "trending" items I had missed since the last time I opened the app, which, like any good millennial, was right before I went to bed. As I scrolled down, the name Michael Sam caught my attention, with the short headline underneath confirming that the openly gay athlete was officially leaving his Canadian Football League team, the Montreal Alouettes, and the sport as a whole after a very brief stint in both. You’ve got to be kidding me, was my first and only thought.
“The last 12 months have been very difficult for me, to the point where I became concerned with my mental health,” Sam wrote in a series of tweets posted Friday. “Because of this I am going to step away from the game at this time. I thank the Alouettes for this opportunity and hope to be back on the field soon.”
This message came just a week after he formally debuted on the field as the CFL’s first "out" player. If you remember, that appearance was delayed by his decision in June to randomly return to our shared home state of Texas for “personal reasons.” Passive-aggressive statements made by Alouettes officials soon after made you realize that something just wasn’t right.
Now my relationship with Michael Sam has been rocky, at best, ever since he was drafted into the National Football League in May 2014. Yes, I thought it was incredibly powerful when he received that phone call from the St. Louis Rams with his boyfriend Vito by his side. And yes, I thought it was shockingly progressive of ESPN to then show the two men share a celebratory kiss. I honestly rooted for Sam at the beginning like most of the LGBT community who thought it was near-impossible for one of our own, especially a man of color, to don a jersey and helmet and be openly gay.
But that’s the last time I believed Michael Sam when he said he wanted to be a professional football player who would commit wholeheartedly to his craft. Because shortly after the NFL Draft, I received that press release announcing Sam’s intentions of starring in a docu-series for the Oprah Winfrey Network. And then it was the news alert that OWN was not moving forward with the show but instead showcasing an actual short film about Sam’s journey, which I personally thought highlighted the 25-year-old’s bratty side. Oh, and let’s not forget his quick change to a celebrity contestant on Dancing with the Stars that, quite frankly, did nothing to elevate his athletic profile. Unless the samba counts.
I think my biggest issue with Sam came when he was invited to take part in the 2015 NFL Veteran Combine, which brings veteran free agents of the sport together in the hopes that they’ll suit up again for a pro-league team. When speaking with reporters at the event, Sam recounted receiving the initial phone call and greeting it with a “What took you so long?” remark. Not “Thank you so much for the consideration,” or “I’m humbled by this wonderful opportunity.”
“What took you so long” is perhaps the most pretentious thing anyone could say, particularly if they have something to prove to both skeptics and themselves. But I guess humility is hard to come by once you’ve been named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. I’m sure you knew that about Sam. He only mentioned it every single time someone questioned his abilities, and rightfully so.
As any person of color knows, either LGBT-identifying or not, we don’t get to feel entitled. That option is never on the table alongside that pen used to sign a multi-million dollar contract. As cute as that life is, one must always acknowledge that hard work serves as our foundation, and it’s only with dedication that we become powerful structures actually worthy of praise. Otherwise we fall to the sidelines and get tackled by a harsh sense of reality that completely blindsides us.
Let me be clear, though: If Michael Sam is suffering from mental anguish, I hope he gets the necessary help and realizes what his true calling is. I don’t wish any ill will toward another gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer person, especially one of color, who — whether deservingly or not — was forced to bench press the entire weight of our expectations. And I won’t even approach the subject of perceived homophobia within the sports world because I guarantee you it still lingers both on the field and in the locker room. For that, he will forever have my respect.
But I believe Michael Sam was wandering around aimlessly looking for a purpose and unfortunately fumbled the ball. Now, like any good millennial, he must pick it back up and head toward the end zone to finally reach his goal, whatever it may be.
Xorje Olivares is an on-air personality and a producer for SiriusXM Satellite Radio. His monthly OutQ show is titled "LGBT: Let's Get Busy Talking."