Not much surprises him these days, but Uncle Mike darned near drove off the highway Tuesday morning while listening to the radio. Apparently, some moron called SiriusXM NFL Radio suggested the league limit the number of gay players. Why, so certain teams didn’t have an advantage?
“Riot,” Uncle Mike said via text.
Uncle Mike is my uncle by blood if not relationship. He’s only 3½ years older than I am and more like a brother. In fact, my mother and grandmother were pregnant at the same time. My father was the oldest of the Gleason clan that included 10 boys. Three were electricians, three others were state troopers and another became a cop.
My uncles were, for lack of a better term, men’s men. They worked hard and played harder. They’re good guys who loved their sports and their beer and hanging out with the boys. When I became old enough to join them, “they” became “we.” We cursed and fought and heckled and found our share of mischief.
And that’s only counting family weddings and funerals.
It couldn’t have been easy for Uncle Mike. He’s the youngest Gleason boy, the only one who didn’t play organized sports and the only gay man in our family. He didn’t figure out his sexual orientation until he was in his 20s, after dating girls and getting engaged to a woman. He never was interested in being “one of the boys.”
He eventually accepted what we suspected, built up the nerve to acknowledge as much publicly and never looked back. He’s also never been happier. And that’s why Michael Sam’s announcement earlier this week that he was gay, hardly shocking inside the Missouri locker room, mattered so much to him and millions of others.
“Our generation is still that afraid generation,” Uncle Mike said. “The generation of Michael Sam is not that afraid anymore. Everybody knows somebody who is gay. I was thrilled that he did it because it gives the weight of truth. You already know that there have always been gay football players. They were never going to say it. He said it.”
Uncle Mike is 50 years old, a single father through in-vitro fertilization, a diehard Bills fan and a principal in the same Florida school district that produced Jets quarterback Geno Smith. He loved watching sports when he was a kid, but he didn’t care enough about them to get involved. He said he couldn’t find his place.
At times, he felt separated. At other times, he separated himself.
Uncle Mike laughed through all the sophomoric jokes of our adolescence, when he wasn’t cracking them, of course. He knew they were ignorant and insensitive more than malicious or homophobic.
Well, times have changed.
Thankfully, sports are changing with them. Elite athletes have gone from stepping up on the playing field to stepping out in the community. They’re realizing there’s no reason to hide. For once, after years of glacial progress, our leagues are coming around. The real shame is that it didn’t happen years ago.
“As a gay man, we’re not out there recruiting,” Uncle Mike said. “Trust me, they’re out there. I’m glad he did it because, if all of a sudden your son or daughter said they were gay, they’re safer in today’s world than before. That’s because of guys like Michael Sam saying, ‘I’m a skilled football player, but yet I’m gay.’ ”
Finally, there’s a bridge in the generational gap that for decades separated management and players working under them. Eight spineless NFL executives – on the condition of anonymity, of course – lined up to tell Sports Illustrated that certain players couldn’t handle having a gay man like Sam in their locker rooms.
Thirty years ago, it may have been true. If a gay player wasn’t kicked off the team, there’s a good chance he would have been ridiculed or, worse, ignored. Athletes who are 30 years old and younger, which make up a vast percentage of NFL players, were raised in a culture that was more open-minded than the previous one.
They have one question: Can he play?
Sam stood before his Missouri teammates during training camp and announced he was gay. And what happened? Nothing. His teammates weren’t worried about who held his hand away from the field. They wanted to make sure the defensive end was holding their hands when they took the field.
If the crusty executives had a clue about generations after them, they would stop worrying. The younger the people, it seems, the more they have been exposed to homosexuality, the more they understand how little sexual orientation matters in sports and the less they care about individual preferences.
The very thing eight Neanderthals feared would rip apart an NFL locker room may have united Missouri. The Tigers finished ranked fifth in the nation with a 12-2 record, tying them for most victories in one season in school history. Sam was named SEC defensive player of the year. His honesty and their success was not a coincidence.
“A guy like him doesn’t have to play the game and ask, “Where do I fit in?” Uncle Mike said. “To me, that’s freeing. When you’re free, you can do anything. Ninety-five percent of the world is accepting. Most people really don’t care.”
Uncle Mike, if nobody cared, why did Sam feel the need in 2014 to announce it to the entire world? After all, you didn’t see the rest of his teammates in the New York Times with the revelation that they were straight. The skeptic in me wondered if Sam was somehow attempting to use his sexual orientation to his advantage.
He’s 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds, an NFL tweener. He may not be big enough to play defensive end or fast enough to play linebacker. He’s projected to be a mid-round draft pick. No matter how many teams are comfortable with drafting a gay man, he could tumble down the draft boards because he doesn’t fit for football reasons.
But if he came out now, knowing the powers of the NFL, couldn’t he stabilize or improve his draft position with the idea a team would take him to show it was progressive? Isn’t that another way of separating himself when all he wanted was acceptance? What’s next, listing height, weight, 40 time and sexual orientation?
Wait, do I sound like the moron on the radio?
“No, I know what you’re saying,” Uncle Mike said. “It’s because later, when they find out, and in today’s world they will find out, people will say you were ashamed and in the closet. If you don’t put yourself out there as proud from the very beginning – and he’s a football player, but he’s a man first and a proud man – then you’re hiding something. He wants it to be a non-issue later. He just wanted to free himself.”