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Soup of This Day #379: So Here I Am

May 31, 2014

Grandad Brian
This is Grandad Brian doing his own, Australian outback-flavoured, interpretation of American Gothic. Apparently he fought some mental health issues in his life, although it’s more hinted at than diagnosed – His generation just didn’t talk about that stuff. In spite of those internal battles, he did alright. You do wonder though, just how big his brassicas could have grown with modern understanding – Photo: Unknown, c1980. Image cropped by Longworth72.

I reckon that there are 2 distinct phases to telling people something about yourself – There’s the telling, which is down to you, and then there’s the dealing, which is down to them. That might read overly simple and it likely is, at least when you write it down. The reality is often a little more complicated. Take the tale of Michael Sam.

Sam plays American football. He’s a defensive end and a decent 1 at that – Last college season he won the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Co-Defensive Player of the Year award. Meanwhile his Missouri Tigers team went 12 and 2 overall and 7 and 1 in the elite SEC. They also won the 2014 Cotton Bowl.

And Michael Sam is gay.

His Mizzou team-mates knew this all season long – Football-wise they dealt with that revelation ok – It doesn’t seem to have harmed their on-field performance. Then, after the season was done, Sam went public.

A heart-warmingly large section of the public handled the news in a positive way – There was an outpouring of support and a general sense that Michael Sam’s sexual orientation was not relevant to his football career. Not everyone thought that – According to a Sports Illustrated article, 8 anonymous NFL team officials had indicated that their choice was not to stand with Michael Sam – They collectively believed that his draft value had been devalued by his coming out, citing such factors as:

‘…a publicity circus and an NFL locker room culture not prepared to deal with an openly gay player.’

My initial reaction to this is to think that those 8 officials had not done so well at phase 1 – In staying anonymous they’d not made a good fist of the telling – The ability to identify who is talking being a cornerstone of a good telling, as it’s hard to attribute credibility to faceless people.

Also, it’s worth noting that bemoaning a publicity circus via a Sports Illustrated article is Pro Bowl-level satire.

Regardless, Michael Sam’s draft value did subsequently drop. Originally projected as a 3rd or 4th round pick, Sam was eventually seen as being ranked as low as 25th among available defensive ends in a market seemingly hungry for them. Some argued that it was off the back of poor draft combine results. This though seems a furphy – Even if the combine is a reliable marker of NFL success, it’s just a part of the picture that also features past college-level performance as a key indicator.

Which gender(s) a player is attracted to isn’t a key indicator of anything football-related. Nor is how others react to the telling, yet those 8 anonymous officials were prepared to lower Michael Sam’s draft value off the back of a possible backlash.

A backlash to affording somebody with basic human consideration.

Sadly, this kind of negative reaction happens and it’s not only coming from extremists like the Westboro Baptist Church. In publicly declaring that he is gay before his professional career has got started, Michael Sam is politely fracturing the passive fiction that there are no gays in the NFL. Don’t ask, don’t tell just got sacked back on it’s own 20-yard line.

That’s a brave move. Sam is not likely to get lynched but he will be the target of hatred from folk who will see his declaration as a sign of the End of Days. Or something. His draft stock was surely harmed – Maybe there won’t be teams who will be homophobic, but there will be those shy of the torch that Michael Sam is now carrying. Just because you’re not against something doesn’t mean that you’d like to be inconvenienced by doing something in support of it.

Yep, turns out that don’t ask, don’t tell got up from that sack and just carried on like it never happened. This was particularly evident in the reaction of some to how Michael Sam celebrated being drafted. He was picked at 249, by St Louis, and when the Rams called him to say hi and welcome aboard, Sam broke down and cried. There’s nothing unusual in that – The guy has just realised a big dream. Nor is there anything out of the ordinary in what he did next – He kissed his partner.

Which is cool – I kiss my partner when something amazing happens to me. She kisses me right back. It’s nice – A show of shared celebration, a signal that this is a team thing going on.

Oh but Michael Sam’s partner, Vito Cammisano, is a guy. It turns out that gay guys typically share their dreams with other guys. And they kiss. Right there on TV.

Cue the oft-heard, ‘I’m not homophobic, but…’

Yeah, you are homophobic. Casually so, but just as damningly. Because you’re not dealing, at least not on terms that are about Michael and Vito, those 2 humans. Dealing is more than words – You’ve got to be able to be ok with the reality at heart too.

I can write about this because I have had some experience in a similar context. Not in coming out as gay – I’m heterosexual, and a white guy in a Western society announcing his love for a white girl is about as privileged as you’ll get. My coming out story is therefore about something other than who I love. It’s about my war with depression.

Now I’m not suggesting that being gay is akin to having a mental illness, although being in love can feel like you’re going insane. Instead I’m highlighting the general similarity around the telling and the dealing.

The experiences that I have had around others relating to an open declaration of mental illness have been varied. There have been the illogical – At a previous employer I attended a training session for those who would need to sit on a selection panel. As part of the session we role-played various scenarios, encountering all manner of prospective job-seekers. 1 of those was a person who was described as suffering from depression and who was open about their illness.

What followed would have been comical if it hadn’t hit so close to the mark for me.

The chair of the selection panel was asked post-interview to talk us through the difficulties of that role-play. She pointed out, to the accompanying nods of others in the room, that the most difficult aspect had been trying to determine if the applicant was a physical danger to those around him. He hadn’t actually appeared dangerous she noted – It was simply the fact that he had declared that he suffered from depression that made him a threat to his potential employer and presumably anybody who came into contact with him.

Sort of like you’d view a zombie.

A basic analysis of statistics would have dismissed those concerns. 1 in 5 Australians will suffer from a mental illness this year. Almost 1 in 2 will at some time in their life. If all of these people were dangerous then stand by for the zombie apocalypse. As Joss Whedon once helpfully pointed out, stock up on Spam – It comes with it’s own opener.

Or you could skip the Spam and maybe just deal in compassion – My very best experience with openly declaring my struggles is a great example of that kinder approach. I had plucked up the courage to tell my manager at a former workplace. We’ll call her Pam, so I don’t embarrass her, and she patiently listened to my halting explanation of what depression meant for me. When I was done telling her that I couldn’t make myself complete a basic phone call, Pam did something rather wonderful:

She told me that any time I couldn’t pick up the phone that all I had to do was write down a note detailing what the call was about and who it needed to go to. Then I just had to take the note to her and she would make the call for me. There would be no questions, no recriminations and no limits to how often this needed to happen.

At work, I’ve never felt more supported. Pam’s simple care plan gave me the space to handle my @#$% better. It wasn’t all 1 way either – Pam was making an investment in me, perhaps figuring that there was going to be a return.

Statistically, she’d have been wise to think that – A recent study in Australia found that for every $1 invested in mental health in the workplace, there was a return of $2.30. That’s better than you’ll get from a bank.

I don’t have hard math to back this up, but I reckon you’ll get a return from investing in the likes of Michael Sam too. Here’s how:

The counter to that Sports Illustrated story was 1 that appeared via Fox Sports. In it, 7 MLB execs countered the 8 NFL officials who believed that Sam’s draft value had been lowered. The 7 all maintained that they’d hire Michael Sam on playing ability alone.

The President of the Chicago White Sox, Ken Williams, went further though. He argued that just passively accepting was not enough. Instead he posed a question for every team executive:

‘Are you, as a leader of your organization, prepared to provide the young man the public and private support he will need along with controlling, to the extent you can, what the behavior is in the clubhouse/locker room?

If the answer is yes, then you have an opportunity to use what some see as a distraction and use it as an individual and team character-building opportunity along the lines of what Branch Rickey did for Jackie Robinson.’

That’s human investment right there. Branch Rickey invested in Jackie Robinson and Ken Williams is willing to offer that for a Michael Sam in the baseball world.

What will the return be? Like I said, I don’t have hard math to back up a projection, but I can say this:

St Louis took Sam 8th-last in a draft where 256 picks were made. In spite of this, in the immediate aftermath, the Rams sold more shirts with Sam’s name on them than any other team could manage with 254 of those other choices. They sold so many that they couldn’t keep up with the demand.

Humanity is worth it after all – Here’s to the Pam’s, the Rams, and the Sam’s. And here’s to everyone just dealing with compassion.

So Here I Am

  1. Excellent, thought-provoking post. Many points to digest and a brief reply or comment won’t do it justice. Since I have had time to process Sam’s drafting and the “fallout” thereafter…and surely because of my interest in employer-employee relations…let me approach this another way. Whether or not it was truly Head Coach Jeff Fisher’s call or the upper management of the Rams to select Sam before he went undrafted entirely…when they did so they created a “situation” players, coaches and support staff all have to navigate now without being surveyed first. How they feel about Sam being a Ram will be asked of them. Over. And over. What of those players who may feel his orientation is an abomination? Do they speak their mind? Can they? Is it even possible to be neutral without being against? As long as this player is with the organization it will be the lead story of their season and aside from what should be their right to own and air their true feelings on his presence, the players in particular have NFL-size egos. I have to believe the media circus will wear upon the locker room. I’ll be interested to see how the St. Louis Rams manage this. There’s no manual for how to manage this. What if he’s simply not good enough and is released? Will the team be cross-examined at length? Of course they will. The fact is, their organization will be under a microscope no matter how his roster status plays out. Not just Sam. Everyone. As for Pam, truly one of the finest people out there. That’s a very touching, teaching moment for us all to learn and grow from. Let us see if the NFL in general and one of their franchises in particular can craft the same kind of special teaching moment from Michael Sam’s arrival.

    • Thanks for reading and for the thoughtful comment. I think that the Rams have to look at this as something to bind a team around. Yep, some players will be upset on idealogical grounds (and egos will be wounded) but there’s going to be a Stanky or a Reese in that locker room to shine a light in the dark corners. One day this kind of pick will be a nothing story – We’ll not blink at a guy loving another guy and being an NFL player. I look forward to that day because then we’ll just be jaw in’ about football.

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