By Brian Patrick
Football is an American institution and lots of us love it no matter the level of play. Strange as it may sound today, we can all thank President Theodore Roosevelt that the game still exists. The first game of college football was played in 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton and true to its rugby origins, it was a rough and tumble experience. Football quickly became the favorite college sport and 26 years later, the game went professional but it definitely wasn’t a game for sissies.
With none of the protective gear and rules for player safety and sportsmanship we have today, the game was brutal, even violent. In 1905 alone, 18 players were killed on the field, prompting demands to outlaw the game. That’s when Roosevelt stepped in. As an advocate for strenuous, healthy living, he saw the physical fitness and character building benefit of the game. Calling in representatives from the Big Three (Harvard, Yale and Princeton), the early proponents of the game, he convinced them to change the rules to eliminate football’s brutality and foul play.
In a continuing effort to reduce the risk of injury, by the 1930s there was a form of Touch and Tail football played. This was carried even further by the U.S. military during WW II. Recognizing the need for soldiers to rid themselves of built-up energy without resulting in injuries making soldiers unfit for duty, they developed flag football as a safe alternative.
But whether it’s played at the recreational, high school, college or professional level, football still isn’t for sissies, evidenced by this quote from Dick Butkus, former Chicago Bears linebacker. He said “I wouldn’t ever set out to hurt anyone deliberately unless it was, you know, important – like a league game or something.” And it’s this ingrained macho attitude that makes it so difficult for NFL players who are gay to come out while they’re still active players.
Although many have speculated that Michael Sam isn’t playing in the NFL because he came out of the closet too soon, Sam has now publically acknowledged that the timing just before the 2014 NFL draft wasn’t necessarily the best. In an interview last week with sportscaster Dan Patrick, Sam said that it ‘probably would have been better’ for his desired career playing in the NFL if he had not come out when he did.
He had told his teammates at the University of Missouri that he was gay but that personal information was meant only for them. Sam’s goal was to make an NFL team roster and then come out. The timing of his announcement didn’t turn out the way Sam had originally wanted. But he believed that someone in the media had gotten wind of his sexuality and was about to break the story that he was gay. Wanting to tell his own story rather than have someone else tell it and potentially sensationalize it with false and salacious information, Sam decided to go public.
He also shared that he had never really wanted to go to Canada and, as it turned out, he didn’t feel he was getting any better as a player while with the Alouettes of the CFL. Sam also had additional pressures – first was the pressure from many in the gay community pushing for him to be the gay standard-bearer for football like Jason Collins was for basketball. And second was the broken engagement to Vito Cammisano with whom he’d had a long-term relationship.
Let’s all recognize that the NFL had and still has gay men who are more than able to play football at a professional level – able to take the physical abuse of the game. And let’s also recognize Sam’s courage in the face of all the media storm and hype. He’s not a sissy – not by a long shot. He’s shown himself to be a class act in the face of incredible pressures. So for now, he’s back at Mizzou in graduate school and training to get back into football. Sam deserves a lot of credit for how he’s handled himself.
Clearly, it didn’t turn out the way he wanted, but Sam says he has no regrets. I just hope that by the time next year’s NFL’s season is ready to start, the “novelty” of an openly gay player won’t be news anymore and we’ll all be cheering on Michael Sam, regardless of the team courageous enough to put him on its roster.