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Michael SamHistory offers us a lens through which to review our most important decisions. Through this lens, it creates a framework for future decisions based on the hard-earned lessons of the past. It gives us an irrefutable rebuke to our poor choices and affirmation of our good ones. In the gay community, more often than not, the history lesson taught is a simple one – it’s easier to hide. On Sunday, former University of Missouri Defensive End and NFL prospect Michael Sam, in interviews with the New York Times and ESPN, announced he was gay and decided to treat history like he treats offensive lineman – by casting it aside. In doing so, he becomes the first athlete in the four major American sports that will be active while publicly acknowledging his homosexuality. The timing of the announcement is the antithesis of Jason Collins; a player on his way into the league, not on his way out. The question now becomes, “Why does this matter?” The easy route to take with the answer, and one you’ll see as the go-to for media-types, is “because he will be the first openly gay football player” or that “he’s shattering stereotypes.” Those responses answer the question on a much too superficial level – it’s sort of like explaining that electricity works by flipping a switch or a car by turning a key. It doesn’t address the underlying historical context of the question. Who does this affect? Why does this matter? And what does this mean going forward?

On a personal level, this announcement does not resonate with me, nor anyone with my worldview. Michael Sam is brave. But for people like me who do not see the LGBT community as any different from the rest of us, it changes nothing; it simply is another example of how we cater to the army of bigots, providing them with validation that we care what they think, that there really is an argument to be made, and that their opinion somehow matters. It doesn’t, and it shouldn’t. No amount of round-the-clock ESPN coverage, public shaming, or NFL players coming out can make them change their minds. So why does Michael Sam’s decision have huge implications for a greater acceptance of homosexuality?

There are two components necessary to change overarching societal attitudes and prejudices. The first is generational turnover. Widespread adoption of a certain viewpoint – especially one that is seen as being more modern than its inverse –  is driven by population growth of like-minded young people who grow older and transfer those viewpoints to their offspring. This generational turnover engineers the exponential proliferation of a certain set of social perceptions and its transition from the minority to the majority – from fringe belief to societal precept. As more and more children are raised to understand what equality means – not in definition but in unasterisked belief and practice  – the American population will further coalesce into a singular belief system with fewer and fewer outliers. This homogenization of generational moral zeitgeist, in my lifetime, will lead to the LGBT community to becoming less and less marginalized with each passing year. Older generations with more antiquated mindsets begin to die off and are replaced by younger people who are not guaranteed, but at least more likely, to be in line with modernity.

If this idea, as it pertains to the acceptance of homosexuality, was represented by a line graph, it would begin in the late 1960s with a gradual climb. Sparked by the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and the subsequent onset of the gay liberation movement, gays and lesbians began to emerge from the shadows. In 1973, homosexuality was officially removed from the DSM as a mental disorder. If this trend would have continued as the generational turnover hypothesis would suggest, the LGBT community might today enjoy more widespread acceptance. However,  the line then descended sharply due to an unforeseen external force: AIDS. In 1981, the CDC first recognized the oncoming epidemic in a group of five gay men in Los Angeles, and from there, the tide began to shift. It wasn’t until the late 80s and early 90s, with the founding of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in schools and a greater scientific understanding of the disease, that the Gay Rights Movement really began to take flight. Since then, the line has begun to show the exponential growth that it might have earlier if AIDS had not altered its course.

The second element is flash points. Large-scale transitions in social ideology require seminal moments, both good and bad, that make people take notice. The American Civil Rights Movement had countless over the course of the latter half of the 20th century: Jackie Robinson trotting onto Ebbets in 1947 (more progenitor than flash point), Brown vs. BOE in 1954, Rosa Parks and Emmett Till in 1955, The Little Rock Nine in 1957, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and “I Have A Dream” in 1963, the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 by Lyndon Johnson, MLK’s assassination in 1968, and much later, the Rodney King beating in 1992. Similarly, the Gay Rights Movement has a long history of seminal flash points, including the aforementioned Stonewall Riots, the first gay rights parades in 1970, Harvey Milk’s assassination in 1978, the AIDS panic, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in 1993, DOMA in 1996, Matthew Shepard’s beating death in 1998, Massachusetts legalizing gay marriage in 2004, and the United States Supreme Court striking down DOMA in 2013. These flash points are not as important as generational turnover, but they still provide ammunition and strength to the advocates. And if the story is profound enough, even some free-thinking children who are being taught intolerance might come to believe that homosexuality isn’t so bad, accelerating the process of change.

Michael Sam’s announcement is a flash point. Though not quite on the same tier of historical significance, it certainly has a place in the previous list. Some may say that the relative unimportance of sports in the grand scheme lessens its impact, but it’s undeniable that sports is a preeminent catalyst of trends in our society. Diversity in sport and acceptance of that diversity is a big deal. Michael Sam’s courage could influence not only closeted gays in sports, but throughout the country. It’s not the final breakthrough that the LGBT community needs, but it is a building block. Together with the invalidation of DOMA, the legalization of gay marriage in 17 states and Washington D.C. since 2004 (11 in the last two years), Tammy Baldwin’s election to the Senate, among others, Sam’s announcement has become a small part of a wide-reaching social transformation that remains in progress. Sam has sacrificed his personal privacy to pioneer a cause and thrown himself inside the belly of the beast. American media will track his every move like the Paparazzi. Based on his actions to this point, it seems like he’s ready for it.

So, what is the media’s role in this? On the one hand, they will inevitably create the very story that they will cover, producing so many talking head segments with the title “Will Michael Sam be a distraction?” that they themselves will create the distraction. Ironic, but that’s how media, especially sports media, operates. But on the other hand, the media have proven to also be a sort of social vigilante, an agent that villifies and makes pariahs of players that speak out against gays in sports – Chris Culliver, Torii Hunter, Jonathan Vilma, and others. Perhaps their role is best described as the culprit-cum-watchdog; the criminal, but also the prosecutor and the judge. They will create the distraction but also shame individual players/coaches/front offices that say something stupid.

The last point to examine is something I wrote about last month, that the NFL does not want an openly gay player. Sam is projected as a mid-to-late first round pick; anywhere from the third to the sixth round seems reasonable. If he somehow falls out of the draft entirely, the NFL’s will no doubt be the saboteur. Progressive teams in progressive cities (Seattle, San Francisco, New York Giants/Jets come to mind) will certainly consider him as long as he fits into their defensive schemes and philosophy. NFL Spokesman Greg Aiello released a statement saying “”We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.” It seems that Sam has now forced the NFL’s hand. If he goes undrafted, the resulting firestorm will be a PR disaster. I believe that Roger Goodell does not think the league –  the players and coaches, not the fans – is ready. But, Sam owning this story and coming out ahead of the combine and the draft, makes it impossible for Goodell to delay any longer. I’m fascinated to see what happens in the coming months, but one thing is for sure: Michael Sam has stamped his fingerprint firmly on the history, and the future, of gay people in professional sports.

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I recently rewatched an episode of ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” from 2009 featuring an interview with former Chicago Bears quarterback and ’85 Super Bowl Champion Jim McMahon. In the interview, McMahon explained that effects of concussions sustained in his playing career were now affecting his everyday life, including walking into a room in his house and not remembering why. Playing through pain is a source of pride for football players, but McMahon now says that the players were not informed of the potential consequences of repeated head injuries. Other high-profile players have admirably come forward and admitted similar things, including Tony Dorsett and Terry Bradshaw. It’s scary to contemplate what it would be like to be lost in your own brain, caught in a violent maelstrom of confusion and uncertainty. Maybe the mind becomes a disjointed collage of past memories that don’t fit together as they should. Maybe it would be like waking up from a dream that you desperately want to remember but can’t. Maybe it’s much worse.

This morning, the sports world woke up to news that Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma had been suspended for the entire season by the NFL for his part in the New Orleans’ bounty program. Hours later, the news was rendered irrelevant after news broke of Junior Seau’s tragic suicide. Still, the eerie juxtaposition of these stories must be acknowledged. Vilma’s former coach, Gregg Williams, was shamefully immortalized after audio leaked of him casually uttering the icy phrase, “Kill the head and the body will die…kill Frank Gore’s head…we want his head sideways.” Given attitudes like this, its no surprise that concussions are rampant in the NFL. At this point, opinions regarding Seau’s mental state are pure speculation. However, anyone who would be shocked if autopsy results show brain damage would be either naive, stupid, or Gregg Williams. As we continue to learn more about Seau’s untimely death in the coming days, it will be fashionable for NFL fans and television cognoscenti alike to condemn the NFL’s lack of attention to the subject. However, in the last few years, the league has undoubtedly heard the clarion call to protect its players from themselves. Most will still claim that it is not enough.

If Seau’s death is ruled as a suicide caused by depression or CTE, it will represent the first suicide of a player that starred during my life. This generational gap meant that the implications of the deaths of Dave Duerson, Tom McHale, Andre Waters, and more recently, Ray Easterling, mostly eluded me. I understood what it meant to older fans who witnessed those players in their primes, but the thought that it could happen to players who I grew up watching, for some reason, seemed unlikely. The signs of impending disaster were there, reflected in the frightening accounts of former players like Ted Johnson, but for the most part, the worst kind of tragedy had been confined to earlier generations. However, given that today’s players are bigger, faster and stronger than they were decades ago, the problem may get worse. As players I grew up watching and admiring retire and attempt to lead normal lives, their brains could be ticking time bombs.

The larger issue to address here is future accountability. Although former players like McMahon and the nearly 200 others who are participating in the lawsuit against the NFL have the right to demand accountability for the lack of action in the past, the more important concern is who will be responsible for prevention in the future. It certainly will not be the fans. Fans of the league champion the cause of concussion prevention in the offseason, but when September arrives, we all fall into the same trap, leaping up from the couch for every bone-crushing, brain-shaking hit. Of this, I’m as guilty as everyone else, so I certainly can’t suggest any sort of fan boycott. It’s so easy for fans to forget about destructive hits minutes after they happen, but for the players involved, the effects can linger for days, if not much longer. As I said, the NFL and its owners have taken some initiative to improve matters, including changing rules and imposing fines and suspensions. But, altering the foundation of the game too much could prove disastrous for one of the most powerful and influential brands in the world.

Both the NFL and its fans have too much to lose if the game is fundamentally changed. This leaves a simple line of logic to contemplate: who stands to gain financially by improving player safety? Riddell. The helmet manufacturer has provided head armor to the league since 1989 and currently has a contract in place that runs through 2014. In the last five years, it has shown a commitment to creating helmets better able to absorb the crushing pressure of a hit, and recently was awarded 5-STAR (Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk value) ratings for two of its newest designs by an independent Virginia Tech study. If Riddell continues to make progress, the game of football could retain its physical nature while providing players with the protection that they desperately need. If not, the NFL and its billion-dollar brand must take ownership of the problem by developing new technologies internally. The league has the financial resources to commission elite engineers and product designers yet continues to outsource the responsibility to Riddell. Although Riddell is a respected brand, at some point the decision must be made to go in a new direction.

Although most of the players I grew up watching are still functioning normally, it seems inevitable that many of them will suffer the same fate as their predecessors. However, if the NFL can make an unwavering commitment to helmet safety and technology, hopefully the next generation of football fans can enjoy watching their favorite players live a full life after football.

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