The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

NFL Prospect Breaks Barriers by Proudly Saying: I'm Gay

Michael Sam advances human rights saying, "I'm a football player and I'm gay."

"I'm Michael Sam. I'm a football player and I'm gay."
On February 9, 2014 a National Football League prospect made history by proudly telling a New York Times reporter, "I'm Michael Sam. I'm a football player and I'm gay.” Michael Sam, who also spoke with ESPN yesterday said, “I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it.” Adding, “I just want to own my truth.”

Waking up this morning to find the national mainstream media applauding Mr. Sam for coming out made me proud and grateful to be an American. I had to choke back tears as I read the front page Michael Sam story in the New York Times this morning. Especially because yesterday’s NYT had a front page story titled, “Wielding Whip and a Hard New Law, Nigeria Tries to ‘Sanitize’ Itself of Gays.”

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You know it’s been an emotionally trying week regarding human rights if watching a Chevrolet commercial including LGBT couples makes you verklempt—which just happened to me…

Michael Sam’s proud coming out occured days after the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics got off to a bumpy start against a backdrop of Russian anti-gay laws and front page stories of human rights violations taking place against LGBT people in countries around the globe.

The Ongoing Fight for Human Rights

I wrote a Psychology Today blog on February 7, 2014 titled, “The Sochi 2014 Olympics and Human Rights.” Since then, there have been a video showing protesters detained in St. Petersburg and reports of censorship of Olympic athletes gaining access to international websites linked to anyone opposing President Vladimir Putin’s anti-”Propaganda” laws.

On February 10, 2014 the Russian Freedom Fund and Athlete Ally group released a disturbing video titled “Russia Declares Discrimination the Latest Olympic Sport.” (Please use discretion if you choose to watch this video.)

The video uses the metaphor of a rugby team brutalizing a gay couple to represent the hateful climate against LGBT people not only in Russia—but in other parts of the world—including Uganda, Belize, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the other 76 nations around the world where being gay is a crime.

I am optimistic that the power of sports to create more tolerance and ‘sportsmanlike’ behavior 'on and off the court' will ultimately prevail. The Olympic Charter is designed to promote non-discrimination and to use sports as a way to bring people together, and break down barriers just like Michael Sam is doing. Hopefully, an international advancement of human rights will be the final outcome of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

Vladimir Putin and IOC President Thomas Bach

That said, seeing Russian President Vladimir Putin and IOC President Thomas Bach standing side-by-side and waving to the crowds at the opening ceremony for the 2014 Winter Olympics reminded me of the nagging question: “Can the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games uphold the fundamental principles of Olympism?”

Michael Sam Advances Human Rights Through Athletics

“Michael is a great example of just how important it is to be respectful of others,” Missouri’s football coach, Gary Pinkel, said in a statement released Sunday night. “He’s taught a lot of people here firsthand that it doesn’t matter what your background is, or your personal orientation, we’re all on the same team and we all support each other.”

Also on the evening of February 9, 2014, the National Football League issued an official 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 N.F.L. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”

The New York Times reported that last April, the Missouri athletic administration held diversity seminars for all athletes, as part of the You Can Play project. You Can Play focuses largely on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues and describes its mission as:

You Can Play is dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation. You Can Play works to guarantee that athletes are given a fair opportunity to compete, judged by other athletes and fans alike, only by what they contribute to the sport or their team’s success. You Can Play seeks to challenge the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas by focusing only on an athlete’s skills, work ethic and competitive spirit.

According to the Times, Michael Sam was one of several athletes to approach Pat Ivey, the associate athletic director for athletic performance, to compliment him after his You Can Play presentation. Mr. Ivey describes Micheal Sam as being one of the more enthusiastic athletes after the presentation—almost as if he was trying to tell Mr. Ivey something.

“When Mike finished the conversation, he said, ‘Coach, I know I can play,’ Mr. Ivey recalled. And we kind of had an understanding of each other, that this wasn’t just him saying, ‘Good job.’ This was him saying: ‘Coach, I’m involved in it. I’m a part of what we just discussed.’" If you are unfamiliar with You Can Play please click here to learn more.

If You Can Play. You Can Play.

I love the motto: “If you can play. You can play.” I have a 6-year-old daughter who loves to participate and compete in sports. Her mom and I encourage our daughter to always play fair, give her best effort, and rebound quickly if she doesn’t win a medal or accolades. Through sports, young people can gain grit and learn to bounce back by promising to 'try harder next time' whether they win or lose.

When I was struggling as a gay teenager, athletics was my salvation. For anyone who might feel like a second class citizen for whatever reason, athletics is a universal way to build confidence, diffuse aggression, and fortify resilience.

Hopefully, having someone like Michael Sam come out in the way that he did will encourage more young LGBT people to get involved with sports. I’ve been out as an athlete since the beginning of my career. When I did an interview with Jim Buzinski from Outsports in 2007 he referred to the role that sports played in turning my life around and building my resilience as a gay teen writing:

If Bergland is an evangelist for the power of exercise, it's easy to understand since it changed his life. He discovered sport at 17 and used it "to pull myself up and get back in the game of life," he said. "I went from being a really depressed and kind of jaded and cynical kid—I used a lot of drugs and alcohol—and dealing with being gay in a really uptight boarding school. But that summer I kind of metamorphosized, not only physically, but my brain changed. I went from being very cynical to being very optimistic and ambitious and eager to seize the day. Exercise transformed my perspective on the world and gave me the confidence as a gay teenager to be my own person and to have a lot more resilience and a spine of steel.

On February 9, 2014 ESPN, the Aspen Institute and the Clinton Foundation all came together to have a powerful conversation about the role of sports in the lives of children and the health of the nation in a town hall. The discussion titled, Kids in Sports, was broadcast on ESPN2. The Aspen Institute's Project Play, convenes leaders to explore solutions to the big problem that in some U.S. communities only one in five children play sports.

Based on my experiences growing up, I related to Bill Clinton’s observation during the town hall that, “A lot of kids are just uncomfortable in schools. Then you play a few games together and they’re not so uncomfortable anymore. It’s a way of belonging. It’s a way of having a common language without having to open your mouth.”

I also felt simpatico with President Clinton’s observations that, “You will enjoy your life more if you find some kind of athletic endeavor that you are good at, good enough just to play. You will also do better…In all probability, you’ll do better in school and you’ll do better in relating to other people. It will make you feel better all day, every day, if you do something right now.”

Herschel Walker summed up my feelings about the power of sports and the ongoing fight for human rights when he made the general conclusion: “I think that’s what kids today have got to realize, is that you can overcome anything if you work at it, that it’s not just going to happen. You have to go out and you have to do something about it.”

Conclusion: Making Progress to End Discrimination Brick-by-Brick

After hearing that Michael Sam had proudly come out Martina Navratilova told Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated, "Any stigma is fading. It's all becoming a question of when not if. The next when is an active gay athlete. It's happening brick-by-brick, and pretty soon, we'll have the whole house."

Navratilova then took a second to chuckle in happy disbelief. "We've hit this tipping point, this flood, this… I don't know what the term is." SI author Jon Wertheim summed it up saying “Actually, there is a word for this: progress." 

If you’d like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete's Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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