Why Michael Sam Makes My Husband Cry…OK, and Me Too

One of my favorite things about my Mate is that he’s a total softie when it comes to sentimental stories. The fact that most of his choke-up moments come while he’s watching TV sports means nothing; that’s pretty much all he watches.

Since I’m a total softie about almost everything, all he has to do is call me in, “Oh, you gotta see this,” and pretty soon we’re both wiping our eyes and laughing at each other.

The other night, Michael Sam got both of us. I blame the ESPYs.

For those of you who may not know: Michael Sam is the former University of Missouri linebacker who announced in February that he was gay. The ESPYs are ESPN’s version of the Oscars. “Best Athlete,” “Best Team,” “Best Moment,” yeah, those are fun, lots of great highlight film. But the real meat of the evening, for people like me (and I imagine most others, else why would ESPN devote so much time to them?), are the handful of inspirational awards.

Like the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, awarded to Michael Sam. A mini-documentary walked the audience through Sam’s childhood–single mom, a brother and a sister dead, two brothers in prison–adversity that would be mind-boggling if it weren’t so wretchedly common among Black American boys.

Then, the clincher: in college, where he went to play a sport he identified as life-saving, a sport emblematic of macho, homophobic culture, Sam discovered the truth about himself. He was gay.

At the end of his junior year, Sam revealed his truth to his team. And they embraced him.

Sam played like a demon his senior year, a consensus All-American, winning the 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year. All through these months, he kept his truth within the Mizzou “family.” Until February, when, knowing the spotlight of the NFL draft would soon be upon him, Sam announced to the national media that he was gay.

In May, the St. Louis Rams drafted Sam…just barely. He was the among the final eight of over 200 players drafted. His emotional reaction, sobbing into the phone when he finally, finally–after three days of waiting!–got the call, had me and the Mate in tears.

But that was nothing compared to his acceptance speech of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. I’m going to let Sam’s words say it all:

“This year I have a lot of experience being part of something a lot bigger than myself. At times I’ve felt like I’ve been living in a massive storm, and I know the storm will end. I’m here tonight to tell you that the lessons I learned about love, respect, and being true to yourself will never leave me.

The late great Arthur Ashe wasn’t just courageous, he was brilliant too. He put all the wisdom in the world into three great sentences: ‘Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.’ Those are words to live by whether you’re black or white, young or old, straight or gay.

…’Use what you have.’ What I have is the privilege to play a game I love with all my heart. Football raised me, taught me about hard work, about discipline, and about teamwork. Whatever passion or talent you have, follow it. I followed mine and it got me all the way to this stage here tonight so I can look out and see so many of my heroes looking back at me.

Finally, Arthur Ashe said ‘do what you can.’ Those have been very meaningful words to me, and the way I see it, my responsibility at this moment in history is to stand up for everybody out there who wants nothing more than to be themselves openly.

To anyone out there, especially young people feeling like they don’t fit in and will never be accepted, please know this, great things can happen when you have the courage to be yourself.

 Recently a friend asked me to talk to his sister, a young woman who was considering killing herself, rather than sharing with her loved ones the fact that she was gay. When we spoke she told me she would never consider hurting herself again and that somehow my example had helped her. It’s amazing to think just doing what we can we can call touch, change, and even save lives.”

The day after watching this speech and analyzing my own emotional reaction, I came up with these truths:

1. Seeing other people suffer makes me cry. For far too many, for far too long, gay and lesbian folks have had to suffer rather than be themselves. Sometimes the suffering is emotional, sometimes physical. It’s suffering, either way.

2. Seeing a wrong finally righted makes me cry. The fact that the Missouri Tigers and their fans, then the St. Louis Rams, and then the larger, glitzy, TV sports community itself, celebrate Michael Sam’s courage instead of bashing him…it’s right. Just like Jackie Robinson slowly becoming a hero for breaking the color barrier, something wrong is finally becoming right.

3. Redemption makes me cry. Knowing suffering has not been in vain, knowing all those gay kids’ futures will be easier because people like Michael Sam have stepped forward…I feel hope for my country.

The Mate and I weren’t crying about football. We weren’t crying about sexual identity. We cry about freedom, love, acceptance, harmony, possibility. If a Black, gay football player is honored for courage–what else can we accomplish together? That’s OUR America.

Do you cry from joy? Hope? Relief? Or are The Mate and I just weird that way? (It’s okay; we already know.)